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The Salon

The Afterlife of coca dreams

Juan Orrantia

(University of the Witwatersrand)

I remember passing through this town many times. I would get tense as we arrived. It was like a heavy mantle of fear that would cling on to me and not let go until I was sure we had already left. The images of heavily armed young men hanging out at cantinas, or simply patrolling town would settle into my thoughts of what it was like to live here.

Until a few years ago, people in this small hamlet tucked in the mountains of the northern coast of Colombia made a living mostly from coca cultivation and cocaine production. It was not that different from many others places in the country, where coca has replaced cash crops and constituted a way of building shattered dreams. But this small place was also the hub of a well-known paramilitary (war lord) commander. The boss, as he was called, ruled this region, and to this day people consider him a father figure, a protector, benefactor and leader. Nothing was done here without his permission or supervision. But today he is serving a sentence for drug trafficking and murder in a US prison. The army has now set up provisional outposts in the mountains, erradicating most of the coca crops and labs. Peasants are wondering what to do, searching for petty alternatives.

I arrived here in search of frozen memories, of names that carried stains of blood in them. Glimpses of the past came about in every corner, and I felt a kind of thrill as I walked into homes once partially forbidden to me. Forbidden for the mere act of fear. The last time I saw this town it was filled with men in army fatigues carrying grenade launchers and looking despairingly at me. Behind them, in their homes, in the fields, were the men and women that also lived under their gazes, for whom this was simply, life.

I had never really engaged them.

Download the photo essay.

Thanks to Santiago Giraldo for his help on location.