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Cocaine Country On Assignment

Cocaine Country On Assignment

Cocaine Country
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Text and photographs by Carlos Villalón



An illegal cash crop sustains local farmers and a 40-year-old guerrilla movement in southern Colombia.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

One afternoon, while crossing the soccer field in the village of Monserrate, I saw a man spreading white powder on three plastic tarps. What are you doing? I asked. "Drying cocaine base," he replied. "If it's wet, it'll be too heavy, and the dealer won't buy it." And no one minds? "Of course not," he said. "Everyone does it." Clearly I'd entered a world where "business as usual" had acquired a totally new meaning.
 
Fresh off the boat that brought me down the Caguán River, I was deep in the Amazon Basin of southern Colombia—territory held by the rebel army known as the FARC. Normally the FARC didn't allow journalists to travel here, and I'd been turned away before. But now I was accompanying a friend as she researched a book about life along the Equator. Apparently her plan seemed harmless enough, so the rebels waved us in. The locals were suspicious, though. Stone-faced and silent, they passed us on the street as if we were invisible—not a word, not even a nod. It was weird. But when we went into a store for sodas, we began to understand why strangers made them so uncomfortable. The customer ahead of us had put a bag of cocaine base (an early stage in cocaine processing) on the counter to pay his bill. I soon learned that merchants all over the region accepted base as payment for purchases, weighing out the right amount and handing back the remainder of the base in change. I'd been working in Colombia for a while and had photographed other rebel-held areas where coca was grown and processed, but I'd never seen anything like this. I knew I had to find out more about this incredible place—and for that I needed the right connections.
 
So I presented my case to one of the FARC's top commanders. Using a pseudonym, as all the rebels did, he called himself Fabián Ramírez. As I explained that I wanted to document the whole cocaine culture here, he listened thoughtfully—and then caught me by surprise. "That's a great idea," he said. "Do it." Sonia, his second-in-command, gave me a signed letter that would let me photograph anywhere, and soon I connected with a guide, a coca farmer named Rubén. I was never sure if he'd been assigned to watch me or was just being helpful, but without him I would never have penetrated the surface of this place. On five trips over the next three years I explored a backwater economy supported by cocaine.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Editor's note: Recent reports indicate that Colombian government troops have moved into this region; the FARC have withdrawn farther into the Amazon Basin; and many of the areas' peasants have been displaced.


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Enter the rebel-controlled cocaine growing areas of the southern Colombian jungles with Carlos Villalón.


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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
As part of a larger effort to curtail the illicit drug industry, the Colombian government—aided with U.S. funds and equipment—has been conducting aerial herbicide sprayings of coca fields in regions where the crops are known to exist. Although effective at destroying the coca plants, the sprayings have also damaged adjacent food crops and water sources, and there are reports of local residents developing health problems after coming in contact with the herbicide. Many coca farmers whose crops were exterminated just move further into the forest and clear land for a new crop.
 
Apart from the aerial sprayings, the government conducts manual eradication operations and has an incentive program for coca farmers to voluntarily switch to legal food crops. But until farmers in remote parts of Colombia, such as those in our article along the Caguán River, have a quick and inexpensive means of delivering their goods to the market, they will have little incentive to switch their coca crops to less profitable and perishable crops.
 
­—Karen C. Font
Did You Know?

Related Links
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime—Colombia Country Office
www.unodc.org/colombia/index.html
Based in Bogotá, this branch of the UNODC has focused largely on establishing alternative development programs for those involved in the illicit drug industry. It has also conducted surveys of coca crops in recent years, which you can access online.
 
Embassy of Colombia in Washington, D.C.
www.colombiaemb.org/
Learn about the country's history, culture, and people. Read about the government's efforts to combat the illicit drug industry.
 
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
www.farcep.org
This is the official website for Colombia's largest rebel group.

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Bibliography
Castaño, Patricia, and Adelaida Trujillo. "Drug Economy: Colombian Peasants: The Road to Coca." Panoscope (September 1988), 12-15.
 
Dudley, Steven. Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia. Routledge, 2004.
 
Dudley, Steven. "On the Road With FARC." The Progressive (November 2003), 23-28.
 
Drug Enforcement Administration. "Coca Cultivation and Cocaine Processing: An Overview." Intelligence Division, Strategic Intelligence Section, September 1993. Available online at
www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/govpubs/cocccp.htm.
 
Drug Enforcement Agency Intelligence Division. The Drug Trade in Colombia: A Threat Assessment. U.S. Department of Justice, March 2002.
 
Forero, Juan. "Where a Little Coca Is as Good as Gold." New York Times, July 8, 2001.
 
Jaramillo, Jaime, Leonidas Mora, and Fernando Cubides. Colonización, Coca y Guerrilla. Alianza Editorial Colombiana, 1989.
 
Marsh, Robin Ruth. Development Strategies in Rural Colombia: The Case of Caquetá. UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1983.
 
Office of Drugs and Crime, Vienna. Global Illicit Drug Trends 2003. United Nations, 2003. Available online at
www.unodc.org/pdf/trends2003_www_E.pdf.
 
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and Government of Colombia. Coca Survey for December 2002 and Semi-Annual Estimate for July 2003. September 2003. Available online at
www.unodc.org/pdf/colombia/colombia_coca_report_2003-09-25.pdf.

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NGS Resources
Pelton, Robert Young. "Kidnapped in the Gap." National Geographic Adventure (June/July 2003), 64-100.
 
Corral Vega, Pablo. "In the Shadow of the Andes: A Personal Journey." National Geographic (February 2001), 2-29. 
 
Alexander, Brian. "Trouble Abroad: How to Avoid Being a Victim." National Geographic Adventure (November/December 2000), 59-60.
 
Hodgson, Bryan. "Simón Bolívar: El Libertador." National Geographic (March 1994), 36-65.
 
White, Peter T. "Coca: An Ancient Indian Herb Turns Deadly." National Geographic (January 1989), 2-47.
 
McDowell, Bart. "Eruption in Colombia." National Geographic (May 1986), 640-53.

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