“I meet Aura, a formidable and untrusting Afro-Colombian woman, at the side of the main road in a sweltering 86-degree heat. I am looking for a job. I want to spend a week harvesting coca in the forest, working as a raspachín, or “scraper.”
“They will think you’re a spy,” she says. “And spies who seek to reveal the location of cocaine factories or guerrilla camps are treated horribly.”
Her fears are well-founded. This region of the Pacific coastline in the Southern Colombian department of Nariño has been a historic battle ground for FARC and ELN rebel fighters, paramilitary groups and narcos, drug-traffickers each commanding their own private army.
And ultimately, inevitably, it is the local, rural population of campesinos that end up paying the human cost of war. Between 1990 and the end of 2000, hundreds were raped, kidnapped and massacred here, to be buried in mass graves. Nariño became an open wound.
Our conversation takes place in the middle of a “commercial zone,” a cluster of street vendors and small businesses on the road linking the department capital of Pasto to the port town of Tumaco. Settlements like this one have seen their population double in recent years due to the cocaine industry.
Llorente is a small town located west of Nariño, near the sea. Houses are concentrated at the edge of the highway and surrounded by African palm tree plantations. The sun reflects blindingly off the asphalt.
The pavements are saturated with junk for sale: cooking pans, diamante-encrusted clothing, entire tables of meat and dry fish, giving the place a distinct aroma. “Bush meat for sale” declares one cardboard sign near the remains of a skinned deer.
It is 11 a.m. and music blasts from the bars and clubs. Inside, Afro-Colombians are dancing, their all-nighters showing clearly on their faces; indigenous men of the local Awa community are doubled over tables crammed with beer bottles.
Outside, meanwhile, women and children from the same community sit waiting on the pavement. During my conversation with Aura, a group of mestizos come and go in flashy trucks and a constant whirlpool of motorcycles swirls around us.
Aura is a mother of four and a coca leaf raspadora.
“Why are you doing this?” she says.
“I didn’t choose it,” I say. “It was necessary.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like all Colombians, I grew up listening more to Pablo Escobar, the great drug lord, than to the founders of the Republic. I want to tell the true human face of that story.”
Aura agrees to introduce me to her husband and family, all of whom are dedicated to coca paste production, and to let me stay there until I can get a job. We drive for thirty minutes in a dilapidated-looking car to the area known as Bajo Mira, an extensive territory on the banks of the majestic River Mira, home to various small settlements.
Here every family has lost somebody, either “disappeared or violently killed,” says Aura. However, the ceasefire between the government and the FARC rebel group, which began about two years ago, seems to have improved public order somewhat. As I am learning, a deep mistrust of outsiders remains intact.
At Aura’s family home, I eat boiled plantain while the children stare at me, goggle-eyed. The house is a wooden structure, raised on stilts. Everything inside is made of wood. There are two rooms that sleep six people, and a small soot-filled kitchen where I will sleep with the children. On a wooden porch, the family dries cocoa seeds that they sometimes sell in Tumaco.
Recently, following the last big oil spillage into the river at the end of 2015, they built their own pool for clean drinking water. The plants that line the banks of the River Mira are completely stained with petrol, and the current carries black crude oil downstream.
The week passes slowly until the arrival of a soaking wet dog announces the return of Léder, Aura’s husband, from the forest. The children jump about him, bombarding him with questions, as he ties up the horse. He enters the house, filling the room with the stench of gasoline.
Aura serves coffee and bread, filling Léder in on my arrival as we wait for the lentils to finish cooking. He greets me by name, removes his swamp-filled boots, takes a bath, and retires to the hammock in the kitchen, where he watches me in silence.
Léder and Aura are an unlikely couple. Léder’s strong indigenous features speak of his roots in the Amazonian region of Putomayo. Aura, an afrodescendiente, grew up on the banks of the river, and speaks as loudly as if she were trying to talk to someone on the far bank.
Her husband speaks in a whisper. Long before becoming the owner of his own coca paste laboratory, Léder learnt the tricks of the trade in Bajo Putomayo, during the time when paramilitaries would leave a handful of dead bodies daily at the side of the road. He arrived at the Pacific Coast twenty years ago with nothing, fleeing war. The one thing he knew how to do well was scrape coca, and so was soon employed as a raspachín.
The family has been in business for three years now, sowing their own coca plants in these wastelands, cultivating the crops I was hoping to get to see, with Léder’s consent.
And, like so many other campesino families, whether they have their own crops or buy the leaves loose, they have taken the risk of installing their own homemade processing lab. The real money lies in not only growing and harvesting the plant, but preparing paste from the leaves.
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