With few job prospects, young men in the jungle borderlands with Brazil risk everything in a marijuana trade that ultimately bankrolls dissident armed groups.
Moonlight seeps through the palm-thatch roof of the maloca, a circular communal house in the village of La Pedrera in southern Colombia. Sitting in the centre of the space, a shaman from the Murui ethnic group chants and hums, deep in concentration.
The shaman passes around a white plastic container filled with green powder. Each of the young men in the circle scoops a pinch of the powder into his cheek and moistens it with saliva. The older man’s lips are coated with the powder, a mixture of pulverised coca leaves and ash called mambe, an integral part of rituals that helps the participants focus.
Beside the shaman is Mateo*, a Murui man in his 30s dressed in shorts and flip-flops. Every time he prepares for a gruelling three-week trek through the jungle, he comes to ask the shaman for spiritual protection.
With the help of mambe, cigars and ambil, a kind of tobacco tea, the shaman visualises the journey ahead and anticipates potential hazards. He foresees encounters with snakes, dangerous animals, river pirates and with the Brazilian federal police across the border.
“You have to take away the police’s ability to think, so they can’t catch people. Then you can go through calmly, thinking about other things,” he says.
On his journeys through the dense forest, Mateo carries several dozen kilos of marijuana that belong to a Colombian guerrilla group. His job is to deliver it to a criminal organisation in Brazil.
Global attitudes toward marijuana are shifting. Colombia legalised and regulated commercial cultivation of cannabis for medicinal and scientific use in 2016. In 2022, a Brazilian court authorised three patients to cultivate cannabis for home medical use.
But recreational use remains criminalised and the trade is controlled by militias and criminal organisations.
In 2020, Brazil ranked third in the world in marijuana seizures, after India and the US. Colombia took fourth place. Since the pandemic, consumption of marijuana has risen as law enforcement let down their guard and traffickers increasingly moved large quantities over remote routes, including through the Amazon.
Trafficking in the most potent marijuana – which surged in 2022, based on the rises in seizures by the Brazilian federal police – finances violence perpetrated by Colombian guerrilla groups and Brazilian organised crime along the Colombia-Brazil border. Recent crackdowns in Colombia have led to authorities seizing record amounts of marijuana being transported to Brazil by river.
In La Pedrera, in a remote corner of Colombia near the Brazilian border, where there is a scant government presence and few jobs, people hire themselves out to the armed groups to haul heavy loads of marijuana through the jungle.
The village is on the coffee-coloured Caquetá River, which crosses into Brazil, making it a strategic transit route. The Apaporis River is also nearby. The rivers are crucial waterways for armed groups to transport personnel, drugs and weapons. Twenty minutes upstream, police and locals say, there is a guerrilla checkpoint.
I’m telling you from experience that the only way out of poverty here in La Pedrera is carrying marijuana
Wilton*, drug runner
People here deny allegations by law enforcement of local involvement in cocaine trafficking – another key illicit trade in this area – and say the main source of sustenance is fishing.
Privately, however, many told of the marijuana trade, describing it as the one economic activity that keeps the village afloat.
“I’m telling you from experience that the only way out of poverty here in La Pedrera is carrying marijuana,” says Wilton*.
Wilton, who worked as a drug runner for about 10 years, grew up in a poor family like most villagers. “As a family, we suffered from an economic crisis, where my father, may he rest in peace, was barely supporting us, until my God allowed him to rest, and that was the end of it,” he says.
About six years ago, for payment of about £5.80 (28,000 Colombian pesos ) a kilo, a group of young men began carrying 50-60kg loads of cannabis through the jungle to a drop-off point in Brazil, allowing crime gangs to avoid military border controls on the river.
After a year, Wilton was able to buy a plot of land for $2,700 (£2,100) and build a wooden house in La Pedrera.
Also operating in the area around La Pedrera are remnants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), factions that did not sign up to the 2016 peace accords with the government.
In military fatigues, a safari hat and rubber boots, a guerrilla leader named Danilo Alvizú made an appearance in April in Llanos del Yarí, in the Caquetá department, bounded by the two rivers.
Surrounded by heavily armed fighters and several other guerrilla commanders and their entourages, Alvizú informed communities about their intentions regarding the “total peace” dialogues with Colombian president Gustavo Petro’s administration.
Alvizú plays down his group’s influence in the area. “Our presence on the Brazil border is surely very minimal,” says the rebel leader, notorious for commanding a group alleged to have committed more than a dozen massacres in the Colombian Amazon and be responsible for much of the marijuana trafficking. Alvizú denies his fighters’ involvement in the drug trade.
“Drug trafficking is a very lucrative matter in this area, where Brazilian federal forces and Colombian military forces are involved. They act as transporters who facilitate drug trafficking,” he says.
In May, in an emailed response to an inquiry from Amazon Underworld – a journalistic alliance working in the region – the Colombian navy said that about eight to 10 tonnes of marijuana a year have been seized in the Amazon region since 2012.
“Brazil has very active cartels that are constantly trying to contact dissident groups and drug traffickers in Colombia to acquire everything related to production of cocaine and marijuana,” says senior Colombian navy officer Harry Ernesto Reyna Niño.
Colombian militias know where army controls are located and recruit members of Indigenous communities for what authorities call hormigueo – “ant trail” – referring to the insects’ capacity for load carrying. Men transport drugs over forest paths and along small creeks towards Brazil.
In Brazil, one kilogramme of high-quality marijuana has almost the same value as cocaine.
Harry Ernesto Reyna Niño, Colombian navy
By buying the marijuana, Reyna says, Brazilian criminal organisations are financing the violence perpetrated by armed groups in Colombia.
The trade in potent marijuana – also known as skunk, which has high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the major psychoactive component in the plant – is attractive because of demand. While some of the marijuana is exported to Europe and eastern Africa, most of the profit is made in the Brazilian market, where the price difference between skunk and cocaine is minimal.
“That’s why [marijuana] is highly sought after in Brazil,” Reyna says. “We can be talking about one kilogramme of high-quality marijuana having almost the same value as cocaine. This is of great importance to drug-trafficking groups in Brazil, such as the Família do Norte, Comando Vermelho, PCC [Primer Comando da Capital] and others.”
In the shadows of the trees and bushes on one of the many islands in the Caquetá River, Wilton talks about his work. After pulling his motorised canoe on to dry land, he finds a fallen tree to sit on and lights a cigarette.
When transporting drugs by river, he says, pirates are a constant menace.
“If you’re transporting 500kg of marijuana, the pirates will steal from you. Well, not really steal from you. They kill you with the famous AK, what they call an AK-47. They open fire on you,” he says, rolling up his shorts to show a bullet wound.
“This work isn’t for everyone. It’s for the tough ones. Many people give up. To get things and look out for your family, you have to sacrifice your life completely,” Wilton says. “Along the way, I’ve seen our companions, the young groups who travel with us, kneeling down and asking God for forgiveness.”
Despite his experience, Wilton always seeks out a shaman before each trip.
“They protect you,” he says. “Sometimes the federal police will attack or even kill you. [The shamans] guide you, so if you run into armed groups of federal police, they guide you right there. And when things go well, they carry your thoughts along the path. They take you to the delivery place, and then they bring you back.”
* Names have been changed.