Colombia’s First Narcotics Boom


A review of The Marihuana Axis: A Regional History of Colombia’s First Narcotics Boom, 1935-1985, by Lina Britto.

Lina Britto’s dissertation is an eclectic and innovative blend of social, cultural, and economic history, an almost anthropological exploration of the marimbero (marijuana-cultivating) elite in Colombia, and an examination of the rise of counter-narcotics diplomacy. This dissertation takes issue with the current academic consensus surrounding the marijuana boom of the 1970s, which suggests that it was made possible by the Colombian state’s lack of control over the two main marijuana production areas – the Guajira peninsula and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. According to this narrative, the decline of the marijuana boom resulted from the natural fluctuations of the boom-and-bust dynamic, the rise of the cocaine cartels in Colombia, and the development of domestic marijuana production in the United States. Britto argues that the marijuana boom should instead be understood as part of a “long-term process of integration of this region into national and international political, commercial, and cultural networks centered in the western Andean coffee region” (p. 3). Moreover, Colombia’s marijuana export industry had a profound effect on the country’s society, culture, economy, and foreign relations. The emergence of the marijuana export economy “was not the result of the absence of the state in a borderland, but rather was a new arena of contestation and accommodation that local elites and popular sectors forged to respond to modernizing state reforms in the very own terms of ‘modernization’” (pp. 3-4).

In Part I, Britto examines the geography of the Guajira peninsula and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and explores the ways in which local merchants reshaped contraband networks that had dissolved during the wars of independence. The arrival of the Second World War, in the form of commercial warfare, created a paradoxical situation in which commercial practices perpetuated colonial dynamics despite the region’s incorporation into both the world capitalist system and the Colombian nation-state. With the defeat of Nazi Germany, merchants were forced to find new sources of income, and they turned away from maritime trade and towards the Andean coffee-producing region and its main market, the United States. Thus, it was the “active engagement in the international conflict that created the conditions for the integration of this peripheral region into the nation-state” (p. 100). The mid-century cotton boom helped create the conditions that would later fuel the marijuana boom, as credit terms were liberalized, lands were cultivated, and workers from all over the country poured into the region, creating associations and political connections, and contributing to the emergence of a thriving middle class. At the same time, however, cotton cultivation led to greater concentrations of land and wealth in fewer hands. Britto analyzes the impact of agrarian reform in the Greater Magdalena, following the withdrawal of the United Fruit Company from the area in the late 1960s, a development that unleashed party factionalism and intra-elite disputes over the role of the nation-state in the region. Complicating matters was the “strategic use of anti-communism to settle disputes, and eliminate electoral, economic, or social competition in localities in the context of the Cold War” (p. 170). The agrarian reforms threatened property rights and mobilized the landed elite to demand state patronage and protection. Meanwhile, Liberal and Conservative factions jockeyed for position in the region and for the “spoils of the state at the local and national levels” (p. 182). Ultimately the Greater Magdalena was divided into three political-administrative units, thereby formalizing and consolidating the political dynamics that had informally governed the region since the colonial period. Intra-elite conflict and competition invited state intervention, which in turn reinforced elite class privileges, leaving the “popular sectors…without alternatives other than displacement, migration and colonization of the agricultural frontiers of…the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, away from the competition among elites and the undemocratic intervention of the national state” (p. 197).

In Part II, Britto examines the formation of the marijuana supply and distribution chain, demonstrating how it brought together disparate actors while facilitating social mobility and the accumulation of capital. Through a deconstruction of the culture of the marijuana bourgeoisie, she illuminates a paradoxical situation in which gendered discourses of honor, morality, and respectability were employed in a “fierce competition for exorbitant profits” (p. 199). Marijuana smugglers benefited from existing contraband routes and networks, which had been employed for smuggling coffee. The U.S. domestic market for marijuana gave a powerful impetus to the rise of the production industry in Colombia. Mexico’s “paraquat wars,” which sought to eradicate marijuana crops through the aerial application of herbicide, also increased demand for Colombian marijuana (pp. 262-263). The transformation of the marijuana sector from a traditional contraband industry to a more robust export economy occurred between 1972 and 1978, with the creation of the “Colombian Gold” strain, also known as “Santa Marta Gold” (p. 276). Britto explores the networks that arose among marijuana cultivators and traffickers and vallenato artists and musicians. While the marijuana bourgeoisie provided funding and connections for the artistic community, vallenato musicians reciprocated by incorporating and glorifying the personalities and activities of the marimberos in their songs. This mutually beneficial arrangement facilitated the transformation of vallenato from a local tradition to a national pastime, and elevated vallenato composers from marginal voices of the dispossessed to national symbols of hopeful striving towards middle-class respectability. Vallenato music thus gave voice to the trials and tribulations of immigration and urbanization that were a shared experience of an entire generation. The professionalization of vallenato music, moreover, was largely accomplished through the marijuana elite’s support of local artists.

In Part III, Britto chronicles the evolution of state responses to the burgeoning drug problem. As the narcotics issue became tantamount to a national security threat, the U.S. and Colombian response became militarized, “and offered an immediate way for the two states to deal with domestic crises of authority and legitimacy” (p. 358). The ultimate destruction of the Colombian Caribbean’s marijuana economy created “the blueprint for drug repression in the country, which, in the following decades, became a model of anti-narcotics endeavors in the world” (pp. 369-370). Britto argues that the violence associated with the narcotics industry was not intrinsic to the business, but rather resulted from interactions between the state and a group of socioeconomic actors that had become criminalized. Moreover, it was not the absence of the state in the marijuana production areas that made the industry so violent, but rather the “type of repressive state intervention, and the responses it generated among traffickers, that did” (p. 415). The military response to the marijuana economy was a watershed in U.S.-Colombian relations, after which narcotics diplomacy and military cooperation were the dominant features.

The Marihuana Axis provides a fascinating glimpse into a region not typically explored in more traditional narratives of the drug war in Latin America. While Britto’s work will definitely be of interest to scholars of Latin America and U.S.-Latin American relations, it also contains implications and insights for economists, anthropologists, and sociologists. The novelty of Britto’s interdisciplinary approach, moreover, will appeal to scholars seeking to forge new connections between topics and themes traditionally treated separately.

Michelle Getchell
Dickey Center for International Understanding
Dartmouth College

Primary Sources

Interviews by the author
National Archives, College Park, Maryland
Archivo General de la Nación, Bogotá, Colombia
Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta, Georgia
Chijo’s Recordings

Dissertation Information

New York University. 2013. 527 pp. Primary Advisor: Barbara Weinstein.

Image: Alternativa. Photo by Author.

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