Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise (Review)

Lina Britto examines how marijuana created a new political culture in Colombia, opening the landscape of possibility for today’s criminal intrigues.

January 13, 2021

Punta Gallinas in the coastal region of La Guajira, Colombia. (Luis Alveart)

The true story of José Guillermo “El Ñeñe” Hernández would have to be set to accordion music. Not some overproduced pop crossover, either. This would-be classic vallenato, live composition, an all-out parranda, three maybe four days straight, on one of the coastal estates the cops raided, or perhaps one they still don’t know about. There would be prize women and prize cattle and enough contraband whiskey to capsize the Almirante Padilla. Important men in woven hats and fine linen shirts would trade favors and bawdy jokes and shout the slurred lyrics to stanzas too dangerous to ever be recited in public.

Colombia got some sense for Ñeñe’s exploits from a different kind of soundtrack last year. A prominent rancher and would-be Caribbean socialite, Ñeñe had been murdered—supposedly for his Rolex—in 2019, not long before authorities declared him a major cocaine money launderer. Then this past March, La Nueva Prensa’s Gonzalo Guillén and Julián Martínez started reporting on a trove of police-ordered wiretaps of his cellphone. Together with curated photo evidence from the late narco’s Instagram, the audios spoke to Ñeñe’s many and intimate dealings with the Colombian power elite, from Army generals and Anti-Narcotics police, to cultural icons and business leaders. The most damning of these involved a concerted, apparently successful “under the table” scheme to buy votes on behalf of the 2018 presidential campaign of then-Senator Iván Duque.

But Ñeñepolítica, as the scandal became known, goes beyond electoral thieving and the sordid paramilitary alliances that continue to constitute the Colombian right. Ñeñe Hernández was a front man, not just for Caribbean cocaine interests and the Duque coalition’s underworld base, but the deeper geopolitical forces that have defined much of Colombia’s recent history.

Released two weeks after the initial Ñeñe recording, Lina Britto’s Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise makes a strong, if perhaps unintended, case that Ñeñepolítica began on the northern coast of Ñeñe’s youth. It was there, in the late 1960s and 70s, that the book’s titular bonanza marimbera took off, opening the landscape of possibility for today’s mafia intrigues. A remarkable, tightly narrated work of oral history, ethnography, and original archival research, Marijuana Boom draws on Britto’s prior training in journalism and ethnography—as well as her family’s regional ties—to map the frontier production belts and Caribbean smuggling circuits that transported Colombia “from a coffee republic to a narcotics nation.” Moving beyond this meticulously rendered political economy, Britto shows how marijuana also created a new political culture, giving voice, through vallenato, to the region’s particular role within the Colombian para-state nexus.

Even locally, writes Britto, the bonanza marimbera has been somewhat forgotten, stashed away in truckloads of bananas, cotton, cattle, coffee, and coal or else buried beneath the avalanche of cocaine that followed. But marijuana, Britto argues, was neither a deviant offshoot of agrarian modernization nor a mere blip on the drug interdiction radar, but a revolutionary tropical commodity in its own right—one that brought together “fractured geographies, disconnected ecological niches, divergent histories, competing socioeconomic interests, and disparate cultures” in profound and lasting ways. Marijuana’s decline proved no less impactful. The global crises of the late 1970s foreclosed alternative solutions to the so-called “drug problem” in both Colombia and the United States, leaving only the permanent counterinsurgency that has since spread throughout the hemisphere. Marijuana Boom ends with the Cold War revanchism of the neoliberal era, as the industrial cocaine economy muscled out marijuana’s bulkier, unrefined, communal operations.

That’s where Ñeñe, a child of the marijuana boom, comes in. He takes us from Britto’s “narcotics nation” to what his compadre Poncho Zuleta, the legendary vallenato artist, once heralded the “land of paramilitaries”—and from there, further still, to whatever it is Colombia is becoming now, four years into its bloody post-conflict transition.

Marijuana and the Greater Magdalena

Settler dreams of plantation agriculture withered before ever taking root on South America’s northernmost coast. If it wasn’t the sun, it was the soil. Natives attacked. Slaves fled. Pirates looted. Haughty, parochial criollo land barons preferred speculation to productive investment. The Spanish were poor administrators of a territory they never truly controlled, but independence didn’t mean incorporation for the Greater Magdalena. All through the tumultuous 1800s, writes Britto, the region would best be described, less as a frontier of the Colombian nation-state than a “corner of the Atlantic trading system.”

Britto divides the Greater Magdalena into three areas of influence, corresponding to the old Spanish seats of present-day Colombian departments: Santa Marta, Magdalena; Riohacha, La Guajira, and Valledupar, Cesar. Sea commerce, contraband, and cattle ranching, respectively, remained the precarious economic bases of a rigid social order with “deep colonial origins.” As coffee smallholding consolidated across Colombia’s temperate highland valleys, the Andean republic came to look down on its sweltering northern littoral through a haze of pastoral romanticism and mestizo race science.

In the early, pre-dawn years of what would be the American Century, Colombia turned decisively northward. The Liberal and Conservative parties had fought three civil wars in as many decades. But both agreed, Britto writes, that the United States represented “a model to emulate and the source of capital to attract.” U.S. capital was already attracted to the Caribbean, as Colombia had learned when U.S. gunboats helped liberate Panama in 1903. Jutting out between the newly completed Canal Zone and Venezuela's bubbling petro-futures, the Greater Magdalena also held enormous strategic significance for the increasingly global model of U.S. imperial expansion. Agrarian development was supposed to satisfy the needs of security as well as profit, the demands for national progress and the imperatives of hemispheric empire. Instead, writes Britto, modernizing reforms “not only failed to resolve but in fact exacerbated conflicts over land, labor, and markets.”

For each successive boom, its own cumulative bust. In the western watershed of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the state-engineered “banana district” sowed absentee rentierism and union militancy. The 1928 massacre of striking United Fruit Company workers marked the climax of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and the permanent decline of the multinational enclave. Next, Britto shows how joint state-building on the desert peninsula to the north ended up “destroying its local economy.” Fearing Nazi inroads in the Caribbean, Washington “waged commercial warfare” on Guajiro smugglers, who had taken advantage of government infrastructure investments to barter sheep hides and tannin-rich divi-divi fruit with the Germans. Cotton, writes Britto, suffered from the opposite treatment. U.S. and Colombian officials showered the cattle elite of the great Sierra Nevada-Serranía del Perijá valley in unsecured loans and subsidized agrochemicals. The surplus from this “overflow of cash” was then sloshed into luxury spending or stagnant pools of land and livestock, rather than “channeled to new markets or transformed into value-added chains.”

Marijuana thrived amid development’s discontents. Britto casts doubt on popular accounts—most recently dramatized in 2018’s Oscar-nominated Birds of Passage—that blame hippy Peace Corps volunteers for introducing weed to the verdant slopes of the Sierra Nevada. That’s not to say gringos didn’t have a role in the bonanza marimbera. The launch of the so-called “supply-side” drug war disrupted Mexican production, opening the market to Colombian entrepreneurs. U.S. demand drove the traffic, and U.S. buyers commercialized the product, often relying on Vietnam veterans to pilot their cargo. But Britto insists that marijuana’s “dynamism lay with popular sectors” themselves. Indigenous peoples leveraged their control of natural seaports and mountainous trade paths. Campesino colonists displaced by political violence and land theft experimented with strains and growing conditions, incorporating novel technologies as well as those promoted through earlier government initiatives. Whether working in supply, logistics, transport, or security, men in particular “refused to give up on the promise of upward mobility, urbanization, capital accumulation, and cultural representation.”

All that glitters isn’t Santa Marta Gold, as the pungent, yellow-filigreed native-hybrid came to be branded. Cultivators abandoned subsistence staples for inconsistent cash-crop income. Indigenous youth abandoned clan relations for low-level, high-risk wage labor. Dependent on U.S. buyers and vulnerable to U.S. suppression, the marijuana boom ultimately reproduced old structural hierarchies. But Britto maintains that, by adapting the values of an “economic culture of scarcity,” marimberos nonetheless “created numerous opportunities for credit and money making for the largest group of people possible.” And they did so, initially at least, with remarkably little violence. “Generosity, solidarity, and reciprocity” governed the all-important middle of the “marijuana pyramid,” Britto writes. It wasn’t until the crackdown, in the late 1970s, that this communal “smuggler’s code of masculine honor” gave way to generational blood feuds and ruthless competition. Brutality, Britto argues, wasn’t “intrinsic to the illicit business” but conditioned by its political regulation.

The Bay of Pigs was the obvious comparison earlier this year, when a mercenary troupe financed in Miami and trained in the Guajira desert embarked on a shambolic invasion of the Venezuelan Narcostate. But Marijuana Boom points to a more immediate history of militarized counternarcotics and anti-communist counterinsurgency. The stated goal of 1978’s Two Peninsulas campaign was to stop the flow of marijuana into Florida, but the emphasis, operationally, was on Guajira, where the potential for radical uprising threatened not just incipient Exxon coal reserves but also the oil-rich Gulf of Venezuela. World energy prices were intolerably high. Revolution was setting the entire Caribbean Basin on fire. Leading figures in Colombia and the United States had openly considered the virtues of pot legalization. But “at a moment when their authority and legitimacy were called into question,” writes Britto, both governments decided on drug war as the answer to liberalism’s manifold crises. The ensuing “reign of terror” brought an end to the Greater Magdalena’s marijuana belt. But with cocaine, this “geography of illegality” only expanded. A temporary state of emergency in Guajira became a permanent declaration of “state-sanctioned lawlessness” everywhere.

“Long Live the Land of Paramilitaries”: The Rhythms of Right-Wing Populism   

Even before they knew what to call it, the Club Valledupar, by founding statute, “strictly prohibited” vallenato. Vallenato was vulgar music. Lazy music. Dirty music. Not quite country—the city elite were country—but low. The music of crime. Or worse, the music of the criminal classes. The generation that herded the great valley through cotton modernization fancied itself less conservative than the old cattle aristocracy. They brought the parranda out from the servants’ quarters, making public, writes Britto, “a practice that their fathers and grandfathers had cultivated in private.” Appropriating popular folklore “asserted the historical continuity of their own right to rule.” But vallenato also gave these traditional families a new language of “political negotiation,” a vibrant “cultural repertoire” to go along with their rising economic clout.

Inaugurated in 1968, four months after the department of Cesar, the Vallenato Legend Festival became the stage from which ascendant cotton-ranchers projected regional power nationally. García Márquez and other intellectuals joined in the planning. Mass media and talent reps were invited. Britto explains that, where agrarian reform had set off a decade of ferocious violence in the Andes, the great valley seemed an “oasis of racial democracy and capitalist productivity” by comparison. This allowed cotton growers to present vallenato—with its European accordion, African caja drum, and notched, Indigenous guacharaca—as an “harmonic fusion” of Colombian heritage, and themselves as its natural patrons. Themed after a colonial conquest myth, the festival in effect made vallenato Colombian. Even after the cotton economy itself had reached exhaustion, the “cotton growers’ agenda” benefited from the prestige of the genre they had defined in the public imagination.

Marimberos, writes Britto, never aspired to “dispute the cotton elite’s political, cultural, or social authority.” They embraced vallenato, not as an instrument of power, but an “end in itself,” a celebration of masculine prowess, a medium to make sense of their peculiar station: “socially legitimate yet illegal.” Industry sponsorship, bulk record purchases, and direct payola windfalls “created a market for composers that had barely existed before” and that eventually took over the national and even international airwaves. But unlike Mexican narcorridos or rap in the United States, the urban, commercialized vallenato of the 1970s did not contain a “counterdiscourse against regional elites or state-controlled media representations.” Parrandas were where narcos went to rub elbows with the political class. Rebelliousness, wrote early vallenato theorist Consuelo Araújo Noguera, herself a matriarch of one of Valledupar’s leading families, found “expression in the spirit and the mind rather than in a real insubordination against the establishment.”

As Colombia’s armed conflict intensified through the 80s and 90s, even this note of performative defiance got lost in the blare of counterinsurgency. The marijuana boom had been “narrow and meager,” Britto writes. Cocaine was not so easily contained. It forced a major reconfiguration of power in Colombia, a refounding of the country, as ‘Jorge 40,’ Valledupar’s high-born rancher-warlord, would have put it. If cotton growers and marijuana traffickers had been “two factions of the same agro-entrepreneurial class,” paramilitarism erased any meaningful distinction between the cattle elite and the cocaine mafia. Critics of the Colombian right often emphasize the private armies, protection rackets, and anti-communist death squads that guaranteed votes at gunpoint. But reactionary mass politics moved to the sound of accordions as well as chainsaws. Jorge 40 and vallenato maestro Rafael Escalona both did their part to help Alvaro Uribe break the Bogota oligopoly in 2002. True to his word, Uribe flew to Valledupar on his very first day in office.

Uribe was a hereditary member of the narco-rancher class, practically born on the back of a pure-bred. The wide-brimmed vueltiao hat never quite fit his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, who gave an unconvincing, silver-spoon Bogotá impression of cowboy populism. Santos had to bargain dear to keep the northern coast in the fold once Uribe started going after his signature peace process—dealing away the vice presidency to German Vargas Lleras, whose party held nefarious sway over the Greater Magdalena departments. (Since convicted of multiple murders, La Guajira Governor Kiko Gomez ran the Ñeñe Hernández outfit.) Such arrangements have always been required for the sake of governability in Colombia. A century before Ñeñepolitica consolidated the backlash to peace, election fraud in Greater Magdalena brought a lengthy reprieve from decades of civil war. But the balance of dependency has shifted in recent years, enough that it’s worth asking whether the coast isn’t calling the shots.

Santos won reelection thanks to the Caribbean political machinery, then lost the 2016 peace plebiscite when he ran out of mermelada to grease the wheels. (A hurricane also hit the Greater Magdalena on polling day.) A similar lack of resources might explain why Vargas Lleras tanked in 2018, despite having the support of seemingly every coastal politician with an open ethics probe or criminal investigation. But in an audio released by journalists Gonzalo Guillén and Julián Martínez, Ñeñe brags about buying votes for Duque with money he stole from Vargas.

An image from the Instagram account of José Guillermo "Ñeñe" Hernández, where he poses, on the right, alongside Iván Duque (center) and his wife. (Instagram josehernandezaponte)

Duque has his own ties to the Greater Magdalena, in addition to whatever contacts he made through Uribe. Duque and Ñeñe’s fathers were close—the former, like Uribe, a prominent Liberal from Medellin, the latter a Conservative cacique and national emissary for the Valledupar cattle elite. Well before the scandal broke, an older cousin recalled how Ñeñe and Duque used to play in the river as children. Duque apparently enjoyed riding donkeys around the Hernández family finca. “The president isn’t my friend,” Ñeñe told an as-yet unidentified caller. “The president is my brother.”

Ñeñe may have defected to Duque out of personal loyalty, or as many analysts suspect, it’s possible the scheme was coordinated regionally. Either way, the powers behind Ñeñepolítica have emerged equal partners in the Duque administration. They’ve claimed cabinet ministries and other choice appointments, against the loud protests of hardline uribistas in the president’s party. By maintaining its nominally independent status in a polarized political landscape, the north coast’s sizable legislative bloc has enjoyed a place of decisive, almost veto privilege. The upstart Char family, which already holds the presidency of Congress, is even poised to run one of its own against Uribe’s next chosen puppet. More than halfway done with his term, Duque has governed a bit like a marimbero—in with all the right circles but no will to actual power. He’d much rather be back at the 2018 Vallenato Festival, young, sought after, swaggering into exclusive rooms, with Ñeñe Hernández to one side, the other arm around new-school vallenatero Silvestre Dangond, singing along with the Grammy winner: “Materialist, gold-digger/You’re about parties, money, and fame.”

Ñeñepolítica and the Burnout of the Colombian Drug War

Ñeñepolítica is sunrise on the fifth day of a long and very messy parranda. The music is tired, the guests even more so. Pretense drowned in the pool two nights ago. Gnecco, Araújo, Cotes, Monsalvo, Manzur, Noguera, Castro, Cerchar, Monsalvo, Lafaurie, Vives—the same incestuous clans that populate Britto’s book are still camped out by the grill, at the bar, their plates full, their hands covered in steak grease and stale booze. There are new families arriving, always new acts ready on call, new venues, as need arises. More money for guards, tips for waiters, more liquor. Great mounds of coke, to keep the party going.

But it’s unclear how much longer it can go, how much more the country will tolerate. Massacres are returning to Colombia’s hamlets and peripheral slums. While the Duque administration continues to dismantle the FARC peace process, 244 ex-combatants have been killed since the accord’s signing. According to human rights groups Indepaz and Somos Defensores, over 600 social leaders have been killed since Duque took office—309 in 2020 alone. Overwhelmingly, this resurgent, everyday violence targets Indigenous, Afro, and campesino communities. Last month, four Indigenous Wayuu were gunned down in a motorcycle drive-by in La Guajira, where death squads have placed Colombia’s largest opposition movement under threat of “systematic extermination.”

“We need to win in La Guajira,” Maria Claudia Daza, a Valledupar-born Uribe aide, told Ñeñe in 2018. The Duque campaign needed Ñeñe’s help to do so because, in Ñeñe’s words, the “fucking miners” at Cerrejon, one of the world’s largest open-pit coal mines, were going for Gustavo Petro, a former urban guerrilla who ran on a green future for Colombia. The “political arm” of the regional mafia, as the Colombian police referred to him, Ñeñe had his own interests at stake, as well. During the period Britto writes about, when an earlier generation of Ñeñe’s organization was getting its start in marijuana, the cotton-rancher class would have been the ultimate power behind the business. Today, U.S.-backed coal developmentalism has all but consumed local agriculture, and it’s fallen to the former revolutionary to fight for agrarian modernization against the cocaine-extraction mafia. Petro had taken the department in the first-round. Electoral fraud notwithstanding, he mobilized huge numbers throughout the Greater Magdalena—and other coastal paramilitary strongholds—in the second. Sintracarbon, the fucking miners union, last November obtained salary and benefit increases following the longest strike in its history.

Guajira gives reason to think that all the death and corruption and negligence, however assured in their impunity, are signs of profound weakness. It’s striking that after 40 years, Duque and the Democratic Center are still running a kind of Two Peninsulas campaign, with U.S. Ambassador Francisco Santos shuttling between campaign stops with Ñeñe in Guajira and surrogate plays for Trump in South Florida. But while Duque is busy saving the hemisphere from castrochavismo, who will save Colombia from crushing Covid-19 austerity? Fidel Castro, with his healthcare diplomacy, might have cast a long shadow in the late 1970s. But it’s hard to fault his ghost for the thousands of Wayuu children who have died of starvation and related disease in the past decade. The late Hugo Chavez isn’t sending torrential rains to the drought-stricken Guajira peninsula, except insofar as he shared with the Colombian right a certain macroeconomic commitment to fossil fuels.

With no policy program to offer, besides deepening immiseration and more drilling, Duque and other Colombian drug warriors find themselves with limited political resources, blaming a racialized “geography of illegality”—to use Britto’s term—for the violence they insist on perpetuating. But the drug war has been long and very messy. At what point do people decide they’ve heard enough of the music?

Steven David Cohen is a journalist and researcher, currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Latin American history at Yale University. He’s written for The New Republic, The Nation, Vice, The Baffler, La Liga Contra el Silencio, and others.

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