Abstract: This paper interrogates the function of violence as a catalyst in the construction, proliferation, and transfer of developmentalist environmental imaginaries between state and non-state actors in Peru’s Huallaga Valley during the latter half of the twentieth century. Specifically, I ask how the 1960s project of road colonization helped to codify a set of masculinist and capitalist spatializations (Ojeda Ojeda 2011, Sundberg 2003, Merchant 1989) that were repeated, mimicked and reformulated through coerced confessions in cases of criminal drug trafficking through the 1970s and 1980s.

Work on the spatial dynamics of state formation pits dominant state fixations (Craib 2004) against localized discourses of resistance. By blending work that examines nature through a modernity / coloniality and decolonial thinking (MCD) lens (Blaser 2010, Escobar 2008) with Michael Taussig’s  (1986) concept of the space of death, I examine the land narratives generated through legal encounters. I contend that, in the court, subaltern actors hardly resisted the Peruvian state’s discourse of jungle colonialism. Instead, they often lent exceptional detail and nuance to the state’s broad understanding of the Huallaga Valley as a developable space. Torture and other forms of coercion figured significantly in such encounters and were a catalyst for the invention of the Huallaga’s cocaine imaginary.

This paper’s contribution is two-fold. First, it introduces new archival sources that significantly complicate and sometimes contradict the burgeoning historiography of Huallaga cocaine. Second, it situates the growth of Peru’s illicit cocaine industry along a broader trajectory of state-orchestrated experiments in jungle colonization.


“The government convenes the greatest highway bidding in the country’s history.”[1] That announcement in Lima newspapers in March 1964 presented the Tarapoto-Río Nieva road to the public in a fashion typical of development boosterism—brash, bold, and only partially true. Tarapoto, nestled as it was in the remotest corner of the Huancabamba Depression, was only reachable by air on its western approach, and the new highway promised at last to connect coastal markets with the vast arable lands of the Huallaga Valley. The Huallaga, a diverse and dynamic area of the Western Amazon, was the site of rich, transnational imaginings for a host of actors ranging from national planners and global construction giants, to early climate scientists, campesinos and cocaine cartels. The highway was the lynchpin in President Fernando Belaúnde Terry’s pet project, the Carretera Marginal de la Selva,[2] which enlisted Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia in a quixotic enterprise aimed at colonizing the eastern Andean flank through one vast road network. Billed as a response to worries of demographic explosion and concentrated land ownership, politicians and international boosters resorted to racial and gender imaginaries to tout La Marginal as a crucial motor of economic growth and regional interdependence that hinged specifically on exploitation of the subtropical dry forests that dotted valleys like the Huallaga. La Marginal represented the reigning development doctrine’s imposition on the Huallaga landscape and a critical component of its construction was a scientific appropriation of the region’s socio-ecological realities. One phenomenon that fed this boom in Huallaga development was the early introduction and utilization of aviation as a means of transport and study.