Remaking (Il)licit Landscapes: Layered Histories and Speculative Time in Peru’s War on Drugs

By Allison Kendra, Stanford University §

Its leaves burst forth slowly from thin, shrubby branches. Every three months they mature, every three months they are pulled by hard-working hands, leaving marks of green and raw flesh, and over time, calluses, on the palms that pull them, slashed across between the pointer finger and thumb, where the branches get tugged. The leaves are put into costales, where they’re collected until they’re poured onto large plastic tarps to dry in the hot sun. Sometimes, instead of producing new, full leaves in regular rhythms, these plants are pulled out of the ground by a crew of 300 state-contracted men, accompanied by armed police. Their branches afterwards are bare and gray, left thrown about the emptied dirt fields, unable to be replanted.

Coca leaves in a costal. Photo by author.

The war on drugs affects the lives and landscapes it targets in ways that are both sudden and long-standing. In Peru, layered histories of insurgency and drug crop production (and intertwined wars against both) motivate these interventions. Speculative calculations, made by coca farmers and anti-drug operators, sustain the ways these landscapes are continuously re-made as both groups work in opposition.


Unexpected Uprootings

We sat gathered at Evelyn’s kitchen table, the evening’s quick pace settled into warm conversation. It was Luz’s birthday. Leftovers from dinner were still on the table, and she was still beaming from the happy birthday chorus we’d sung just before she blew out the candles and made a wish for her 34th year. We were catching up on our lives and recent happenings, the conversation ping-ponging back and forth, moved along by quick-footed jokes and accompanying laughter. There was a pause – Luz turned to me and told me, carefully, that they took her coca. They took it?, I asked, processing what she must mean. , yes, she said, ya no tengo nada, I have none left. All of the coca plants I had, they’re gone, they pulled them up. Her steady eye contact and posture, still and leaning slightly forward, conveyed the weight of her statements, though she smiled slightly and her eyes crinkled in response to my surprise. Everyone in the room understood the implications of these uprootings – everyone in the room had had their coca taken too, everyone in the room had been through this before.

The Peruvian state anti-drug office, DEVIDA (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo y Vida sin Drogas), operates war on drugs-funded programs known as “alternative development,” which encourage farmers to switch from the illicit cultivation of coca, the leaf crop used to make cocaine, to the licit cultivation of export-oriented crops such as cacao and coffee. They also fund the state unit responsible for removing coca, an important first segment of their alternative development operations. These efforts are part of the legacy of war on drugs initiatives that have been underway in Peru since the 1950s, with support and funding from the United Nations and the United States. The Huallaga Valley, where my conversation with Luz took place, was once one of the largest sites of coca production in the world, and has been promoted as a “miracle of success” in the war on drugs, within Peru and internationally (Cabieses 2010). The Peruvian state and the farmers it targets know that this “success” is not absolute, nor permanent. After over sixty years of repeated efforts to eliminate coca production in the Huallaga, large-scale coca farmers have moved elsewhere, but the small-scale practice has never fully gone away. With the relative inaccessibility of viable drug crop alternatives, coca production in the region is on the rise again, even as eradication continues.

Coca bushes with mature leaves. Photo by author.

But what does your chacra look like now?, I asked Luz. How did they leave it? I was unable to imagine her field without its rows of low, bushy, leaf crop constituents. I struggled to comprehend, as they could, what it meant for something to be there and then all of the sudden not. Para llorarse, she answered. They take even the smallest plants, even the ones growing in the weeds, even the ones you thought were hidden. From Tocache towards Juanjuí they went, pulling up everyone’s coca. She described one of her plants, an older plant that had been growing anew, detailing its form. One of its branches had just been starting to produce new leaves, and she had been excited that they were going to be ready to collect in the next harvest. Some of her plants had been just about to give their very first mature product, some were up to four years old, and a few scattered plants were older than that, divulging coca’s long history of cultivation here. I had been with her while she was harvesting only two months previously – she had been anticipating another harvest in a month. After the eradication, she was left with an emptied half-hectare, her sister-in-law’s land four hours hiking from town. She planned to buy seeds and plant them again, this time farther away. She wondered when and how she’d be able to afford to do so.

Writing on the wall of an Anti-drug Tactics Operations building, a division of Peru’s national police, that reads: “Luchamos por el Perú y el mundo” (We fight for Peru and the world); “Trabajamos por un país sin drogas” (We work for a country without drugs). Photo by author.


Intertwined Interventions

DEVIDA employees explained the cat-and-mouse nature of the war on coca production to me in terms of coca’s legal status. Coca is at once licit and illicit in present-day Peru, and has a long history of traditional use in the country.[i] A limited number of people have permits to grow coca legally and sell it to ENACO (Empresa Nacional de la Coca S.A.), the state-regulated, legal buyer that facilitates the making of licit coca products, such as candy and tea. But most often coca is grown to be used as the alkaloid base for making cocaine. Coca grown for such a purpose – or, in the eyes of the state, any coca grown without a permit – is illegal, and thus liable to eradication. “Alternative development” programs exist because of coca’s licit/illicit ambiguity, DEVIDA employees repeatedly told me – If growing coca were definitively illegal in Peru, we would just put the caught growers in jail. Instead, after eradication, we try to give them alternatives. [ii]

Drug crop eradication is widespread, but the alternative development “aid” that sometimes follows it is not. After eradication, people who depend on coca are not only stripped of their income, but also the time and care they invested in growing, harvesting, and planning in their daily lives. They are often left with tough choices about how to move forward. Their options or lack thereof exist within overlapping structural inequalities – those who can afford to “get out of coca” often have enough economic or social capital to invest time and money into other alternatives, and land on which to do so. While anti-drug programs continue to promote cacao and coffee as alternative crops, the people operating them know that these crops are not yet an economically or otherwise viable coca replacement for most farmers, and that as they continue to eradicate coca, it will continue to be replanted.

Present-day coca eradication in Peru is also connected to the violent internal conflict that occurred between Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) and the Peruvian state during the 1980s and ‘90s (Stern 1998). From the state’s perspective, coca cultivation remains linked to past subversion, and its present or future threat, because the illicit coca/cocaine economy is known to have helped finance Sendero’s activities. Sendero, the state, and narcotraffickers – three usually distinct groups – sometimes blurred divisions in the years surrounding Peru’s internal conflict, especially in the Huallaga Valley. Alternative development efforts seek to erase the overlapping history of drug trafficking and insurgency, and its potential for reoccurrence, by eradicating coca and the illicit economy connected to it.

Backed by the Peruvian state, the United States federal government and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, drug war and military interventions in the Huallaga often linked with the Peruvian state’s war against Sendero. The linkage between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency campaigns is a common pattern,[iii] as national and international governments often make causal the link between drug crop cultivation and intrastate conflict. The ongoing importance of coca as an object of jurisdiction can be seen in the way the Peruvian state evaluates their interventions. While its justifications for alternative development are based on social reasonings, the success of these programs from year to year is measured in hectares. They ask: Is coca production increasing or decreasing in their zones of intervention? How much cacao and coffee have been planted in areas that were previously cocalero?

These interventions have long histories and layered contexts. They also continue to occur now, disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods in ways not accounted for by measurements and jurisdictions. Luz knows the rhythms of leaf maturation, of predictable income, and its interruptions. She knows the labor of the people who harvest, and the hot sun they feel as they work. She also sees the war on drugs’ use of contracted workers, and the orders eradicators are paid to enact. She experiences what it feels like to watch cycles repeat, and to not have options for exiting. These lived, embodied processes are sites that large-scale interventions render abstract.

A DEVIDA office in the Huallaga. Photo by author.


Eradication Cycles and Speculations

One of the most recent widespread eradication efforts in the Alto Huallaga occurred at the end of March 2018. After state anti-drug offices determine their next area of intervention, 300 state-contracted men descend upon the landscape, walking into coca fields on foot after being dropped off nearby via boat, helicopter, or truck. While coca used to be eradicated with toxic sprays, it is now done by physically uprooting coca bushes with special shovels that each worker uses to dig out the plants in swift, repeated motions. CORAH (Proyecto Especial de Control y Reducción de Cultivos Ilegales en el Alto Huallaga), the state anti-drug unit that eradicates coca, was formed in 1983, during Peru’s internal conflict. Since illicit coca cultivation was valuable to Sendero’s insurgency efforts, and to coca farmers, CORAH workers were often attacked by Sendero or by coca farmers themselves. As unarmed, temporarily state-contracted civilians, CORAH workers were particularly vulnerable, and their work was considered highly dangerous. It is for these reasons, as one of CORAH’s directors Nicolás explained, that CORAH continues to be housed within a police base and that its workers are accompanied by an armed police force when they conduct eradication. While confrontations with eradication teams are now infrequent, eradication efforts continue to emblemize the way these entanglements endure.

Uprooted coca after eradication. Photo by author.

Drug crop eradication and replacement is a lesser-considered aspect of the war on drugs when compared with high-profile drug busts that make news headlines, but it is a major part of the way national and international governments intervene in drug crop-producing regions across the world. These interventions occur in conflict-laden, resource-rich areas of drug crop cultivation in Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Lao People’s Democratic Republic (UNODC 2019), where nearly 4.5 million people rely on income from the production of drug crops. These programs have been implemented on a global scale for over thirty years without reducing drug supply or the inequalities that aggravate these scenarios (Buxton 2015). The violence enacted in the war on drugs is not only structural, mired in centuries of colonial logics concerning race, class, gender, and nation (Telles 2019), but is also lived and embodied on an everyday basis for people who do not seek to be its targets.

Will these cycles of eradication and replanting continue?, I asked Nicolás as we discussed CORAH’s work. Farmers will continue to replant coca until they get tired of it, he responded. In his estimation, this change happens after their coca has been eradicated three times or so – at that point, small-scale farmers decide it’s no longer worth it. The state’s implicit goal is to wear them down in repeated motions. I asked him about CORAH and DEVIDA’s stated ultimate goal – eliminating illicit coca production – and if he thought it would ever be possible with their current strategy. He laughed and responded, To not have illicit coca production in Peru, first, we need to not have production of cocaine; to not have this, we need to not have cocaine consumers; to have this, we need more drastic rules and controls, first, on consumers, next, on producers. He conceded that their strategy was not working; even when they control coca in one area, its production expands in another. Nicolás also blamed armed groups, referencing the specter of past and potential insurgency. He acknowledged that coca brings income to people, and to the state, but clarified – it’s an illegal income. If we approve of this, we’d be a narcostate. Eso no queremos, no podemos permitir eso, we don’t want that, we can’t permit that, he asserted. Instead, they maintain precarious landscapes with recurrent elimination, fighting a war on drugs with no end in sight.

Luz had seen CORAH’s heavily guarded trucks enter town that day. She knew they would be going towards her coca field, and she couldn’t bear to go watch. She did however make the trek there the following day, to see if there was anything left. I walked there with her afterwards, in fields where we had walked together before, while they had been full and productive. Now, some fields had one or two bushes standing amongst the mass of dead, uprooted ones. Luz repeatedly showed me places where eradicators had gone deep into coffee fields and other areas where coca had been thought to be more hidden from view, demonstrating to me the extent to which CORAH had not left any live bushes behind. That there were a few plants currently standing in the otherwise ransacked fields was not the result of CORAH’s oversight. Rather, the farmers had followed behind the eradication teams as quickly as possible and replanted the bushes they thought might have a chance at survival. But there was no rain, the weather was hot, and some farmers had delayed too long before replanting out of fear that the eradicators might return. The replanted crops didn’t survive.

As we walked, we passed bushes that had their roots buried sideways in a mound of dirt, in the hope of future transplanting. Luz scratched underneath the bark to see if the cambium was still green, and if the plants might still be alive, hoping for a strategy she could use to save a few of her own. Others had already planted new coca, using stores of shoots that hadn’t been eradicated, likely because they had been grown somewhere else. The rest were buying seeds and making plans to grow coca in new fields, farther into the forest. The state-contracted eradicators, uninvolved in how CORAH’s decisions were being made at the directors’ level, had empathetically told them to do so – just plant farther away next time, they suggested. Farmers speculated about when the eradicators might be back, and tried to time their decisions alongside these speculations and the approaching summer season.

Those without other options replant, knowing this cycle could soon be repeated.


[i] Coca has been grown and used by indigenous peoples in Peru for thousands of years. It has also been used a tool of discrimination and exploitation against indigenous peoples, during colonization and afterwards in differing yet continuous forms. Coca, a leaf crop with multiple beneficial properties, is distinct from cocaine, which was synthesized from a coca leaf alkaloid by German chemists in 1860. Coca and cocaine not only were both once fully legal in Peru and elsewhere, but coca and cocaine production were actively encouraged by the US and other cocaine-consuming or -producing countries (e.g., Germany, Japan) in the late 1800s and early 1900s, especially in the Huallaga Valley. This legality was drastically overturned by the mid-1940s, leading the US and other countries to criminalize both coca and cocaine. See Gootenberg (2008) for a detailed and extensive historical overview.

[ii] Alternative development officials gave this explanation to me by comparing coca farmers with opium poppy and marijuana growers, which are far less in number in Peru. As growing opium poppy and marijuana are both fully illegal in Peru, their growers who are caught are supposed to be directly imprisoned, rather than given second chances and opportunities to grow licit alternatives, such as is the case with coca farmers. They justify this logic by explaining coca’s ambiguous licit/illicit status (and history) in Peru.

[iii] Notably, much of the research on the intricacies of the overlap between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency interventions has been conducted from a platform interested in advancing national/international ‘security’ and state-building. Writing as a political scientist towards this end, Felbab-Brown (2013) discusses the overlap between war on drugs interventions and counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, drawing on fieldwork in multiple landscapes of internal conflict and illicit drug economies. While multiple actors besides the US government have been involved in overlapping counternarcotics/counterinsurgency efforts in Peru, Lutz (2009) provides an important discussion of anthropology of or for the US military. She also describes the social and political context of intermittent presences and absences of anthropological studies on these topics.

Works Cited

Buxton, Julia. 2015. “Drugs and development: The great disconnect.” Swansea University Global Drug Policy Observatory Policy Report 2: 1-65.

Cabieses, Hugo. 2010. “The ‘Miracle of San Martín’ and Symptoms of ‘Alternative Development’ in Peru.” Transnational Institute Drug Policy Briefing 34: 1-12. Retrieved

Felbab-Brown, Vanda. 2013. “Counterinsurgency, Counternarcotics, and Illicit Economies in Afghanistan: Lessons for State-Building.” In Convergence: Illicit Networks and National Security in the Age of Globalization, edited by J. Brewer, M. Miklaucic, M., and J.G. Stavridis, 189-209. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press.

Gootenberg, Paul. 2008. Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Lutz, Catherine. 2009. “Anthropology in an Era of Permanent War.” Anthropologica 51 (2): 367-79.

Stern, Steve, ed. 1998. Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980-1995. Durham: Duke University Press.

Telles, Ana C. 2019. “Mothers, Warriors and Lords: Gender(ed) Cartographies of the US War on Drugs in Latin America.” Contexto Internacional 41 (1): 15-38.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2019. “Alternative Development: Work in the Field.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime website. Accessed May 28, 2019.

Allison Kendra is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology. She studies the intimate everydayness of embodied labor, domestic violence, friendship, and the past as it emerges present, in the context of war on drugs and post-conflict interventions in the Huallaga Valley of Peru, where these dynamics affect daily life but do not define it. This blog post and the dissertation research that informs it are based on knowledge that her interlocutors possess and experiences they continue to live.

This post is part of our thematic series: Ecological Times.