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The “Evil Crops” and the “War on Drugs” in Colombia

By Margarita Martínez-Osorio

Ph.D Student in Latin American History. Indiana University-Bloomington

“Our relationship with land cannot heal until we hear its stories.”

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge

These days, I often find myself thinking about the weird, sometimes funny, and most of the time uncomfortable conversations that I am confronted with as a Colombiana living in the United States. From “you don’t sound like Colombian; you don’t speak English like Sofía Vergara!” (weird…) to my constant reiteration of “its Colombia, not Columbia” (funny…), there is always one uncomfortable subject that crosses most conversations: drugs.

I remember my first day as a teaching assistant here in the US when I introduced myself to my students: “I am from Colombia, a country in South America. Have you heard of it?” The answer was almost unanimous: “yes, in Narcos,” the Netflix TV show. Some of my students even made gestures imitating guns and cowboy poses. The easy response to these reactions is something that should be obvious to all: there is more to Colombia than drugs and Pablo Escobar. The difficult conversation comes when we acknowledge the fact that, by the end of the 1990s, Colombia had become the first global grower of coca leaf that would later be transformed into cocaine, with the US as one of the leading consumer markets of the illicit drugs produced from the Colombian soil. This is not a story of cowboys and heroes. This is not a story of entertainment.

This is a story of unresolved violence that has left thousands of victims behind, and it seems that both in Colombia and in the US, we don’t like to talk about it.

I recall the first time I heard about coca or marijuana. I was a ten-year-old child seated next to my parents watching TV. In a cartoon-format, an advertisement pictured a family of farmers, a rainbow, a field full of colorful crops. According to the commercial, this is what Colombia’s countryside would look like without coca or marijuana—a peaceful paradise with abundance of food and resources. A slogan accompanied the end of the ad: “La coca, la marijuana y la amapola matan. No cultives la mata que mata” [Coca, marijuana, and poppy kill. Don't grow the plants that kill]. Behind the slogan, there was a cartoon showing an evil marijuana leaf. To this day, this advertisement from the early 2000s still resonates in Colombians from my generation. It was catchy and we recall it vividly. Now I can say that this commercial is one example of the silences surrounding the coca and marijuana crops, and the stories of those who grow them. Silences that have stemmed from the rhetoric and practices of the “War on Drugs.”

This is a screenshot of the advertisement campaign “No cultives la mata que mata” [Don’t grow the plant that kills”]. The screenshot shows an “evil” marijuana leaf. To watch the full ad, see:

Since the 1970s, when US President Richard Nixon declared the “War on Drugs,” Colombia’s coca and marijuana fields have been targeted by local and international governments and military forces as a pervasive source of narcotraffic and criminality. The ultimate goal of the War on Drugs in Colombia was clear—to eradicate the largest number of coca and marihuana crops and to incarcerate those individuals associated with the production, trafficking, and consumption of illicit drugs. These aims materialized in Colombia through “Plan Colombia,” a policy funded by the US government devoted to the militarization of the so-called cocalero territories and the aerial spraying of coca crops with glyphosate. With Plan Colombia, the US and the Colombian governments aligned to “kill the plants that kill.” Within Plan Colombia’s framework, coca and marijuana crops needed to be eradicated; they were pictured as evil crops, as the main obstacle for Colombia’s development, and, in accordance, they needed to be removed from the Colombian soil.

But the narrative of the “War on Drugs” in Colombia obscures the fact that Indigenous groups have grown coca and marijuana crops since the pre-Columbian era, claiming the healing properties of these plants and distinguishing between coca (the leaf) and cocaine (the drug). The “War on Drugs” also silences the stories of the Colombian peasants who grow coca to feed their families and meet their daily needs in a countryside that lacks the infrastructure to provide roads, health, education, and housing services for rural inhabitants. The narrative of the “plants that kill'' does not tell us that aerial spraying with glyphosate not only has killed the alleged “evil crops,” but has also poisoned peasants’ sources of food and peasant women's bodies endangering their reproductive health, even causing miscarriages. The “War on Drugs” does not tell us that militarization disproportionally increased the human rights violations in Colombia’s countryside leaving a trail of murders, forced disappearances, rapes, and torture that, to this day, remain in impunity.

So, no. This is not a story of cowboys and heroes. This is a story of systematic silence.

I’m writing these lines after two months of continuous protests in Colombia. On April 28th, 2021, people in Colombia took on the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the economic measures proposed by the government to alleviate the Covid-19 pandemic. For protesters, the tax reform bill enacted by the government would benefit the rich, deepening middle and poor classes' vulnerability. But the dissatisfaction in Colombia goes beyond a particular bill. As shown by the history of the “War on Drugs,” layers of silences have served to obscure the root causes of inequality and violence in the country. Maybe, as argued by Robin Wall Kimmerer, healing becomes possible when we start to tell the stories of the land and, in this case, the stories of the so-called “evil crops” and of the social actors and political powers that have shaped this history of silence.

A history of silence that belongs not only to Colombia, but that belongs to the United States as well.

Coca Leaves. Image source: Contagio Radio. “En el año han asesinado a 7 jóvenes cocaleros en Colombia.” October 2017.


Bautista, A.; Capacho, B.; Cruz, L.; Martinez, M.; Pereira, I.; Ramirez, L. Voces desde el cocal. Mujeres que construyen territorio. Bogotá: Dejusticia, 2018.

Britto, Lina. Marijuana Boom. The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise. University of California Press, 2020.

Centro de Derechos Reproductivos. Salud reproductiva y glifosato en el contexto de conflicto armado. Universidad del Valle: 2020.

Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica. El Placer. Mujeres, coca y guerra en el bajo Putumayo. Bogotá: Taurus, 2012.

Ciro, Estefanía. Levantados de la selva: vidas y legitimidades en los territorios cocaleros del Caquetá. Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, 2020.

Ramírez, María Clemencia. Entre el Estado y la guerrilla: identidad y ciudadanía en el movimiento de los campesinos cocaleros del Putumayo. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia (ICANH), 2001.

Tate, Winifred. Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats: U.S. Policymaking in Colombia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.

Torres, Maria Clara. Estado y coca en la frontera colombiana. El caso de Putumayo. Bogotá: CINEP, 2011.

About the author:

Margarita Martínez-Osorio is a Ph.D student in Latin American History at Indiana University, Bloomington. She comes from Bogotá, Colombia. As a historian, Margarita focuses on agrarian history, gender, and peasant mobilizations in Colombia. She is also the Latinx Outreach Coordinator for the Healing Garden team.

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