Making the State: Roads, War, and Local Orders in the FARC Territories

In August of 2017, as part of the Peace Accords with the Colombian government, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) presented an extensive list of assets to be destined toward the victims of the armed conflict. It included approximately 3,700 kilometers of roads, most of them located in areas of influence of this guerrilla group. In this article, we investigate the type of actors, collaborations, power relations and technologies that made the construction of roads possible in Puerto Guzmán, an Amazonian municipality with a prolonged FARC presence. We argue that the construction and transformation of these infrastructures over time enables us to understand the state as a co-production involving different dynamics and actors, including some antagonistic to the state order.


En agosto de 2017, como parte de los acuerdos de paz con el gobierno colombiano, las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) hicieron entrega de una extensa lista de bienes destinados a reparar a las víctimas del conflicto armado. Entre estos se incluyeron cerca de 3.700 kilómetros de carreteras, la mayoría localizadas en zonas de influencia de esta guerrilla. En este artículo indagamos el tipo de actores, colaboraciones, relaciones de poder y tecnologías que hicieron posible la construcción de carreteras en Puerto Guzmán, un municipio amazónico con presencia prolongada de las FARC. En este sentido, argumentamos que la construcción y transformación en el tiempo de estas infraestructuras permiten entender al estado como una coproducción que involucra dinámicas y actores distintos, algunos antagónicos al orden estatal.

Em agosto de 2017, como parte dos acordos de paz com o governo colombiano, as Forças Armadas Revolucionárias da Colômbia (FARC), houve a entrega de uma extensa lista de bens destinados a reparar as vítimas do conflito armado. Entre esses bens, foram incluídos aproximadamente 3.700 quilômetros de estrada, a maioria localizada em áreas de influência dessa guerrilha. Neste artigo, questionamos o tipo de atores, colaborações, relações de poder e tecnologias que tornaram possível a construção de rodovias em Puerto Guzmán, um município amazônico com presença prolongada das FARC. Nesse sentido, argumentamos que a construção e a transformação no tempo dessas infraestruturas permitem entender o estado como uma coprodução que envolve dinâmicas e atores diferentes, alguns antagônicos à ordem estatal.


In August 2017, as part of the peace agreements with the Colombian government, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) provided an inventory of its property and assets, intended, by law, to serve as material reparation to the victims of the armed conflict. The inventory, made up of several lists and subdivided by type of assets and their origin by blocs and fronts, sparked a prolonged dispute between the government and members of the secretariat of the now defunct guerrilla group. On August 22, barely a week after the delivery of the inventory, Néstor Humberto Martínez, then Attorney General of the Nation and staunch critic of the agreements, sent a letter to the Minister of the Interior in which he made several objections to the amount and nature of the assets. On the one hand, the prosecutor alluded to the “indeterminacy” of different assets, such as vehicles, houses, land and livestock, which, in the absence of precise information on their location or official records or documents of ownership, could not, according to him, be transferred to the Victims Fund. On the other hand, he insisted on the impossibility of cataloguing as assets many of the elements registered in the inventory, given their “insubstantial” nature or because they constituted “expenditures.” In this respect, and with a certain sarcasm, he referred to utensils lacking “commercial value” included in the list of “furniture and fixtures,” such as “mops, brooms, boots, pots, orange squeezers, lemon squeezers, glasses, wheelbarrows, frying pans, fruit salt, talcum powder, ‘little plates’, etc…” He also cited some services listed in the “social investment” category, such as “1 patient treated with first aid after being struck by a cow for $1,000,000” or “1 penile cavity surgery to a young man for $150,000; etc.” (Martinez 2017, 4).

In a section of the letter, titled “Road Infrastructure,” Martinez mentioned the transportation infrastructure works, mainly roads, included by the FARC in its inventory of assets. The roads registered by the guerrilla totaled 3,753 kilometers and had an estimated monetary value of $196,622,000,000 COP (approx. US$54382000), ranking third in importance in the guerrilla’s assets after real estate and armament). According to the Attorney General, these roads could not be part of such inventory as they were not alienable assets, and it was therefore not possible to allocate them to repair the victims of the conflict. He added that this road infrastructure “is not property of the FARC, because, in the worst-case scenario, it would have to be included among assets owned by the Nation” (Martínez 2017, 4). Although the meaning of this statement is somewhat ambiguous, it seems to implicitly suggest the incompatibility between goods of a public nature, such as roads, and the nature and practices of subversive actors, a point to which we will return later.

The inclusion in the FARC’s inventory of roads, bridges, highways and other works categorized as “civil infrastructure” had strong resonance in the media. Several media outlets emphasized the extent of roads reported, pointing out that these far exceeded those built by multinational giants such as Odebrecht or national contractors such as the Nule family -both involved in corruption scandals for mega road projects-, or even the total number of tertiary roads that the government pledged to build in the municipalities prioritized for the post conflict era (“Las FARC habrían construido más vías” 2017). Despite the fact that the information presented by the FARC is very vague regarding the location, condition and characteristics of the registered roads, the figure of 3,753 kilometers of roads built by a guerrilla is undoubtedly striking, especially in a context like the Colombian one in which one of the most reiterated causal factors of the conflict has been low state presence and investment in an extensive portion of the national territory.

Regarding this association between state absence and the armed conflict, the preamble of the Peace Accords states that “the central axis of peace is to promote the presence and effective action of the state throughout the national territory, especially in many regions that today are afflicted by abandonment, by the lack of an effective public function, and by the effects of the internal armed conflict itself” (“Final Agreement” 2016, 3). The term “abandonment” is cited multiple times in the text of the agreements and, in its double connotation of cause and effect of the conflict, serves as a context to reaffirm the idea that state presence is a sine qua non condition for peacebuilding. This presence, on the other hand, is conceived through two parallel objectives: that of “ensuring the legitimate monopoly of force and the use of arms by the state throughout the territory” (“Final Agreement” 2016, 79) and that of “strengthening the institutional presence of the state in the territory” (“Final Agreement” 2016, 194), a point which includes infrastructure development among its components.

In this relationship of conditionality between state presence and the achievement of peace or, inversely, of causality between its absence and the perpetuation of the internal conflict, the almost 4,000 kilometers of roads reported by the FARC appear to be a paradoxical element. The prosecutor’s statement that this road infrastructure “is not the property of FARC,” given that by its public nature it is “property of the nation,” both clearly expresses and reinforces this paradox. This, however, does not have to do with the apparent contradiction between public or civilian goods produced by the guerrilla, but with the role of an actor antagonistic to the state participating in processes of state configuration, by means of infrastructure construction.

This article discusses this role in the specific case of highway construction. We argue that such infrastructures depict the state as a process of co-production in which different actors and dynamics participate, rather than as a monolithic apparatus that expands from center to periphery and whose absence translates into disorder and conflict. To this end, we inquire, historically and ethnographically, into the type of actors, collaborations, power relations and technologies present in the opening of roads in Puerto Guzmán, an Amazonian municipality in the department of Putumayo. Puerto Guzmán is a relevant case for the development of this argument in three specific ways: first, it has been a territory with a very low institutional presence of the state, which favored the prolonged dominance of a subversive actor (the FARC); second, this prolonged dominance was translated, among other dynamics, into the construction of a significant number of roads in the rural area of the municipality; and, third, the construction of these infrastructures not only contributed to the consolidation of guerrilla rule, but also to the construction of the local state.

In highlighting the role of the roads built under FARC rule in the dynamics of state construction in this municipality, we do not intend to assert that the guerrilla supplanted the state or that the type of order they established can be equated to that of the state. As we will see below, the FARC’s participation in the opening of roads evinces logics and ends different from those of the state, even though neither the means to achieve them, nor their effects, necessarily differed between the two actors. Thus, although these infrastructures strengthened the guerrilla’s territorial control and their logics of connectivity were opposed to those of the state, their construction contributed, paradoxically, to the formation of the latter. This occurred through processes such as the consolidation of the municipality and, subsequently, of its greater legibility and territorial control by the state. Finally, the material transformations of the roads analyzed in the article reveal not only overlaps between the two orders, but also the oscillating and discontinuous character of the state and, more specifically, the way in which its practices were mediated by the armed conflict.

The article is structured in five parts. In the first section, we situate the argument in the theoretical and historiographical discussion on the state and sustain that an approach centered on its materiality gives rise to a different perspective of the processes of state configuration. In the second and third sections, we analyze the opening of transportation routes in Puerto Guzmán within the patio-temporal context of the emergence of the FARC and the coca economy, and how the dynamics around these routes illustrate the process of local state construction in this municipality. In the fourth section, we emphasize the logics of power present in these infrastructures and how these logics reveal similarities and differences between the modus operandi of the state and the FARC. Finally, in the fifth section and in the conclusion, we highlight the unstable character of the state as seen through the geography and the changing materiality of road infrastructure, specifically in the period of the escalation of the war between the government and the FARC and, subsequently, in the context of the peace dialogues.

Rethinking the State

The notion of the state as a monolithic force that expands in a centrifugal movement gradually integrating territories and populations has been widely criticized. For at least two decades, the anthropological literature has been concerned with examining the multiplicity of practices, actors and relationships that challenge the binary differentiation between state and society (e.g., Sharma and Gupta 2006; Hansen and Stepputat 2001; Joseph and Nugent 2004). Some authors, on the other hand, have analyzed the historical and contemporary role of margins, peripheries, and symbolic and physical borders in the construction or legitimization of state orders (Harambour 2019; Uribe 2017; Ramírez 2015; Serje 2011; Das and Poole 2004). However, in Colombia, the dominant historical narrative around the state draws from a Weberian paradigm which assumes as its exclusive condition of possibility a monopoly of force by a centralized authority. In this paradigm, the “Colombian State” (in capital letters) is frequently characterized through adjectives such as “fragmented,” “co-opted,” “failed,” “weak” or “absent.”1

These adjectives refer to a topographical language in which, as Harvey points out, “the limits of state power seem to coincide with a clearly defined territorial boundary” (2012, 77). The famous statement “Colombia has more geography than state” by the vice president and chief negotiator in the Santos government’s dialogues with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla, Gustavo Bell, is a clear example of the entrenchment of this language in the official state narrative and its relationship with the conflict. Along the same lines, Ernesto Guhl, a highly influential figure in the development of the geographic discipline in Colombia, in referring to the low state presence in an extensive portion of the national territory, affirmed that one of the most visible expressions of this problem was the absence of roads (1976, 128). Although this assertion is situated in a historical context of expansion of the agrarian frontier through directed or spontaneous colonization processes, it is part of and reaffirms a state-centric vision of power whose scope is materially manifested in the existence or absence of infrastructure in the territory.

Different theoretical approaches have discussed the role of transport and communication infrastructures in the expansion and consolidation of the state through geographic integration, territorial legibility and centralization of power (Lefebvre 2009; Scott 1998; Mann 1984). Generally, these circumscribe such infrastructures to the state domain, leaving aside the role of non-state actors in their conception or construction. Our interest here is not, however, to include a new typology of infrastructure, but to discuss, based on its analysis, the participation of such actors in its conception and development and, in doing so, to understand the local dynamics of state building. In other words, instead of assuming infrastructure as an inherent corollary to the process of expansion and consolidation of state power in peripheral areas or areas outside its control, we approach infrastructure as a set of practices and relationships through which this power is confronted and (re)configured in and from its margins. Thus, we argue, following Trouillot (2001), that the materiality of the state resides not so much in the institutions or places of government, but in the power relations and the way in which these relations produce certain spatialities for the deployment of power.

While there is growing interest in the study of the dynamics of local configuration of the state in Colombia, this has focused mainly on the analysis of organizational, partisan or identity elements (Torres 2011; Ramírez et al. 2010; Bolívar 2006). Our emphasis on infrastructure seeks to go beyond these dynamics by examining the material relations that traverse the state and, in turn, how the materiality of infrastructure reveals transitions between different political orders at local and national scales. In this sense, the article seeks to contribute to recent discussions on the relationship between politics and infrastructure (Anand, Gupta, and Appel 2018; Harvey and Knox 2015; Acevedo-Guerrero 2019; Uribe 2019), as well as analyses that situate this relationship in contexts of armed conflict (Peñaranda, Otero and Uribe 2021; Bachmann and Schouten 2018; Kernaghan 2012).

“The love for that road was great”

Las Perlas is one of the rural settlements of Puerto Guzmán located on the banks of the Mandur River, about 30 kilometers east of the municipal capital. No one remembers exactly when the bridge (see image 1) there was built and the time reference is always the same: “back in Casanova’s time,” indicating that the work dates to the administration of Jairo de Jesús Casanova (1995-1997), the municipality’s first elected mayor. But the reference to this character is not only temporal. Everyone who recounted the story of the bridge remembers him as someone who “collaborated with the cause” by contributing with food, construction materials and a master builder from Mocoa who stayed for about two months and helped with the foundation works. Another contribution arrived thanks to a deputy from Puerto Guzmán who secured two million pesos in cement with the Putumayo Governor’s Office. Likewise, another promoter contacted an engineer from Caminos Vecinales (Neighborhood Roads) who came from Mocoa to provide technical assistance.2

Image 1.

Las Perlas Bridge, July 2018


Although these and other contributions made by politicians and state officials are recorded in the collective memory of those who were involved in the construction of the bridge, this event is remembered mainly as an achievement of the community.3 Josué,4 one of its main promoters and who was elected mayor in 2001 with the support of the municipal community action boards (JAC), remembers that:

There we had 280 people in a single community day pulling the beams. People came from La Ceiba, El Recreo, Cerrito, Paraíso, El Eden, Agua Azul, Esmeralda and Brasilia. All these neighborhoods came to help us, even if it was only for a day, two days, they came. The love for this work was so great that people did not mind walking a day to come to work.

The different versions of the bridge express a similar emotion and evoke each moment of its construction as a feat. The mingas (voluntary communal labor) in which women and men from nearby and distant villages participated; the wait for the arrival of summer in order to be able to divert the riverbed and shovel the holes for the foundations; the design –made by the master builder brought from Mocoa-of an elaborate system of pouring concrete through pipes from a suspension bridge built in the eighties; the casting of the columns; and, finally, the assembly of the 28-meter long surface, with beams and planks of water-resistant wood which were pulled for hours and even days by mule and shoulder.

The bridge was replaced in around 2010 by another concrete and iron bridge built by a private contractor. Fabio, founding settler and former president of the Las Perlas JAC, says that a few years ago, a community action board president without much seniority in the region suggested tearing down the bridge after a drunk man fell from it into the river and drowned. The proposal created indignation among the people of the settlement, including Fabio, who remembers the episode as a personal grievance:

Because I am telling you, this was not a one or two-day job; it took a long time. And trucks passed over it, maybe not filled with twenty tons, but with ten tons. And here there was a president who wanted us to tear down that bridge because it was a risk and because we already had the other one, and I said: “no, that bridge is historic for us and we are going to try to maintain it.” And there it is, there it is!

In Fabio’s and Josué’s testimonies, the bridge appears as an infrastructure whose symbolic and affective meanings are inseparable from the collective and individual effort invested in its construction. The reiteration that it was the community that sawed, carried and worked and, on the other hand, that the bridge is there, that it is still standing, situates a past event in the present and gives it validity through its material permanence. The mention that the bridge “is historical” refers, following Joanne Rappaport, to the idea that “history is a question of power in the present and not a disconnected reflection on the past” (1998, 16). In this case, moreover, this question has to do not only with who builds the infrastructure but how, through it, we can understand the way in which the process of state-building is perceived in a frontier region. The discussion of who does and what role they play in the construction of a road, bridge or other public work is fundamental in this sense and, as we will describe next, shows that state-building as seen through infrastructure is a relational and asymmetrical process.

If, in the stories about the bridge, there is a certain consensus regarding the contributions of politicians and institutions, the same is not true for the guerrilla. Salomón, a settler and social leader from Puerto Guzmán who accompanied us on a motorcycle tour of roads built during the FARC years, and who, from his experience as a public works inspector inherited a millimetric knowledge of them, was the most emphatic in this regard. “That bridge was made with the guerrilla and the community,” he told us, while pointing to the old bridge from the new one; and, unable to escape the irony, he added: “we were fighting twenty years for twenty fucking meters!” Following are some of the other responses to the question of whether the guerrilla played any role in the opening of the bridge:

Josué: No sir, absolutely nothing. They didn’t get into it; they didn’t say yes and they didn’t say no. They never touched us. Nothing. This was purely a peasant idea, but they never intervened in the process.

Fabio: No. Look, you know, or I don’t know if you know, but if we talk about reality, in those times there was guerrilla cooperation […] So when we did the work, we had the ideas, we thought, we always had to say “see, we have this idea that…” [and they answered] “sure, well, for your benefit, how can you not do it? We support you” […] On certain occasions, sometimes they would say to you, “see, it’s time to fix the road.” Because sometimes you get behind, or the community doesn’t support you, and the roads get bad, right? If that were not so, if they had said no, we would not have built that bridge.

Algemiro [Las Perlas settler]: The guerrilla collaborated with ideas. They encouraged the people. They would go and tell the community “on such a day there is a minga in the school to move the beams,” and all the people would get together […] There were 500 and 600 people pulling one of those beams.

Although these versions express a certain ambivalence and dissent, they derive not so much from the presence or absence of the FARC in the bridge event, but from different ways of understanding what it means to do or to build. The reaction of the inhabitants of Las Perlas and other parts of the municipality to the mention that several of their roads appear in the inventory of FARC assets was almost always the same, and consisted of stating emphatically that it was “we” (the community, the people of the village, the peasants) and not “others” (the municipality, the department, the government, the guerrilla) who had built them. In these testimonies, the “who” almost always alludes to the material work of doing (who dismantled, who loaded, who built) and it is this work and no other that defines the authorship of a work. However, when inquiring about how they were built, state actors or institutions emerge (generally through contributions in kind or money), and also the guerrilla, whose participation is usually associated with a relationship of coercion. Algemiro’s assertion that the FARC “encouraged people” in the work on the bridge, or Fabio’s statement that without their consent the bridge would never have been built, hint at the existence of this relationship. On the other hand, the difference between these two versions (in one, guerrilla intervention is active and, in the other, passive), or their contradiction with the third (Josué), is partly explained by the temporal and political transition in which this particular event is inscribed.

From Rivers to Roads

Beyond the significance of the Las Perlas bridge for those who participated in its construction, this work is an important milestone in the colonization of Puerto Guzmán. The origins of this process date back to the mid-twentieth century with the arrival of a group of settlers from Valle del Cauca who acquired land on the right bank of the Caquetá River, in the place that decades later would become the municipal capital. In 1975, the road connection with Mocoa (the capital of the then Putumayo intendancy) boosted the arrival of settlers attracted by the possibility of acquiring cheap land and by the boom in the plantain trade during that decade. The colonization followed the course of the road to the main settlement and through some trails opened to the south of this road, and to the east along the Caquetá downstream, connecting with other settlements such as Curillo and Solita.

The road network made little progress until the end of the 1980s. With community work and some public contributions, 20 kilometers of road were opened between the settlement of Puerto Guzmán and Puerto Rosario, and another 20 kilometers from Santa Lucía to the south, towards the current municipality of Puerto Caicedo. The Caquetá River continued to be the main means of transportation and access to the territory part of the future municipality. However, the initial coca boom in that decade and the relationship of this economy with the consolidation of the FARC would bring drastic changes to life in this territory, among them, the accelerated advance of colonization through the opening of roads.

Coca arrived in Puerto Guzmán in the early 1980s, allegedly from Caquetá traders linked to the Medellín cartel (Cancimance 2017, 114). Its first boom lasted until the middle of that decade, and was followed by a period of depression associated with the government’s war against drug trafficking (CNMH 2012, 32). During this initial boom and a subsequent one that lasted throughout the 1990s, many went from growing plantain or corn to growing coca, while several waves of farmers, raspachines (coca harvesters), traquetos (drug traffickers) and other permanent and floating migrants linked to the business arrived.

The change in river transport during those years captures well the transformation brought about by coca in the lives of the Guzmanenses. Accounts of the early years of settlement describe navigation as a feat of self-taught pilots, moving slowly up and down the Caquetá in bongos (one-piece wooden boats) powered by “Archimedes” 4 or 5-horsepower engines. The jams and shipwrecks in the river’s streams were frequent events and their passage required the assistance of oarsmen, a position regularly occupied by black men from the neighboring town of Puerto Limón. With the coca boom, the wooden boats were replaced by fiberglass sliders and the “Archimedes” by engines of up to 275 horsepower. These voladoras (speedboats) abruptly altered the notion of time and distance, as they connected in hours places that were previously separated by days of travel.

The high flow of people along the Caquetá and the depletion of land in the river’s meadows led to the construction of roads to open farms inland, consolidating a strip of colonization from the Caquetá towards the Mandur and Yurilla rivers, tributaries of the former. As this area became more populated and new villages and hamlets emerged, the pressure for a land connection to the settlement of Puerto Guzmán also increased. The construction of the Las Perlas bridge was an important event in this context because it was through this bridge, and the extension of the main road to this point, that this connection was established.

By the mid-1990s, when the bridge was built, the FARC was already a dominant actor in the territory. The different versions of their participation in the bridge event show, however, that their role in the opening of roads was still ambiguous or diffuse. This situation would change in the following years, when the guerrilla adopted a “pro-roads” policy, with origins that can only be understood as a symbiotic relationship between this actor, coca and peasant communities.

The FARC arrived in Puerto Guzmán in the early 1980s as a result of the policy of subdividing military fronts. From there, the 32nd Front from Caquetá emerged, from which the 48th would later derive. The 32nd Front established itself in the territory of Puerto Guzmán and remained there until its demobilization in January 2017. Unlike what happened in other parts of Putumayo, the presence of the 32nd Front was not contested by paramilitary groups and it exercised hegemonic power for nearly two decades. This power was largely based on coca, especially from the 1990s onwards, when the FARC began to exercise control over the entire production chain of the business through the imposition of taxes. Likewise, coca and cattle ranching –whose development in Guzmán was linked to the former– required the expansion of the colonization frontier and, in turn, the opening of access roads. This was a paradox for the guerrilla, since the opening of roads also allowed access for government forces and other actors that could dispute their territorial control.

Salomón, who at the time the Las Perlas bridge was built was a public works inspector, affirms that the guerrilla initially refused to allow the construction of roads, “because, according to them, where there were roads, government repression would follow, they would enter the territories where they had control […] And they said: ‘No, because the army will enter through the roads, the police will enter, the law will enter, the paracos [paramilitaries] will enter’.” Along the same lines, Fabio comments that “at the beginning, there was this blockage because they were very visible here in the sector, and they said that since there were roads there was going to be penetration by the public forces.”

Although there is no consensus on when the FARC began to promote the opening of roads, this change is associated with the pressure exerted by the JACs in the context of the coca marches of the mid-1990s. In fact, from this moment on, a period of road opening began in different points of the municipality, in several of which there was guerrilla participation. In any case, this transition would have been difficult to achieve had it not been for the relationship described above between FARC, colonization and coca. Some of these roads are shown in the following map (see map 1), based on oral testimonies, georeferencing in the field and satellite images.

Map 1.

Roads in Puerto Guzmán differentiated by actors involved in their opening and approximate construction dates5


This map is a crucial testimony of the state building process in Puerto Guzmán. On the one hand, it evinces the participation of non-state actors (FARC and peasant communities) in the construction of public infrastructure traditionally associated with state penetration. It is important to highlight this because, with the exception of a couple of roads built by the FARC for military purposes, the roads shown on the map, including those in which this actor participates, were built for public use. Although in some cases the municipal administrations collaborated with money or in kind, in most cases such roads were the product of the work of the JACs with guerrilla support. The predominance of these two actors in the opening of roads was almost absolute in the 1990s, during which the sphere of state power was very tenuous and confined to the urban area of the municipality.

On the other hand, the roads on the map are similar to the rural roads built by the state, in that they form a network that connects rural areas with the municipal capital. This municipal territoriality of the roads, which in turn coincides with the area of influence of FARC’s Front 32, is relevant because it reveals the way in which they contributed to the process of state building in Puerto Guzmán. This does not mean that the political or economic logics present in these infrastructures were similar to those of the state-driven or state-built roads. A central difference lies in the direction of the roads. In the case of the central state, roads in the Amazon region expanded in a center-periphery direction as the colonization process progressed. Many of the roads built by or with the support of the FARC go in the opposite direction, connecting rural peripheral areas and eventually forming a municipal road network that integrates with state roads. This direction reflects both the economic dynamics in which these infrastructures were immersed -the coca boom- and the guerrilla’s logic of territorial control, which was expressed not only in the decision of where to build roads, but also in their control. This was the case of Puerto Guzmán, where control of the roads meant a threat to the territorial sovereignty of a state whose presence was limited for a long time to military repression of the population.5

Although the logics of the two actors are different or opposed, the same is not true of their effects. The clearest example of this is the role played by these infrastructures throughout the consolidation of the municipality. The FARC opposed the creation of the municipality, a milestone that was finally achieved in 1992 after a long campaign by civic leaders, mainly from the urban area. Paradoxically, however, this milestone would have been very difficult to reach without the participation of the 32nd Front. The fact that this Front exercised territorial dominance over the area of the future municipality for a long time, enjoyed a certain degree of legitimacy among its population, and also facilitated its colonization around coca, favored the demographic and economic growth of the area. These two elements were key to achieving the status of municipality, a central element in the processes of local state-building (Torres 2011). The opening of trails and roads and their gradual evolution into a road network was vital to the municipality’s consolidation and, hence, the territoriality of the state.

In Puerto Guzmán, as in many places associated with state absence or marginalization, state-building processes have been marked by endogenous or local practices that question state-centric narratives of power. As we illustrate in this section, infrastructure participates in these processes in obvious ways such as the production of flows and connections that facilitate the political and economic integration of territories, and in others that are not always visible or recognized such as the direct or indirect participation of non-state actors in their construction. But infrastructure also speaks, in a material sense, of the type of relationships through which local order is established, as well as the way in which this order reflects the logics of state power. These relationships are not visible on the map, whose static and flat character strips the roads of their political materiality and reduces them to a flat vectorial projection between points. The following section delves into how these links came about on the ground and how they express the type of order implanted by the guerrilla.

Building the State

Alex, a settler from La Esmeralda and one of the few current residents of the area, remembers the opening of a trail between La Esmeralda and the Galilea inspection:

I had to work [on that road]. From here from the village of La Esmeralda to Galilea you can still see the trail […] The guerrilla projected it in their minds, in their planning, and they said: “we are going to do it with the communities”; communities putting their shoulder into it, with their pick-axe, so we had to start doing it […] We were in a certain part when [the FARC] said: “No, this is bothering the people too much. Why don’t we all get together, raspachines, farm owners, this, that, and the other, and collect a contribution; then we can buy a bulldozer, or pay for a bulldozer, to open a road and go faster.” Everyone gave their money. We collected money, a lot of it. And [once they had] the money, “no, the commander so-and-so left. He ran away with the money.” They helped out a little bit, you know what I mean? But the road was really built by the community […] That they present this as their work, no sir. With the barrel of a gun they forced us to carry a shovel, a pickaxe and then to hand over the money, and then nothing happened.

Like the Las Perlas bridge, the trail from Galilea to Las Perlas does not have an exact construction date. Alex places this event in 1995, but others date its construction one or even two years earlier or later. The same is true for other details of the story, such as the bulldozer episode. In Salomón’s version, for example, it was acquired with money from the community and brought by the guerrilla on a bumpy trip down the Caquetá River from Curillo to the mouth of the Mandur, where it sank in the river and had to be salvaged in pieces. Mention of the theft of the money appears in other versions, but it is not very common in the testimonies about the guerrilla, and in this case it alludes to a particular commander that people remember as especially corrupt.

Beyond the divergences between one version and the other, Alex’s testimony about this trail reveals key elements for understanding the relationship between infrastructure, local order and the state in territories under FARC control. On the one hand, its construction date coincides with a coca boom in Putumayo, which peaked in 2000 when this department concentrated 40% of the hectares planted in the country (UNODC 2005, 15). During those years, the middle and lower Mandur basin became an epicenter of coca cultivation and a base of operations for the 32nd Front. The boom brought people and money, and with them came the need (and the possibility) to build roads to expand the cultivation zones and open cattle ranches. The roads were both the effect and the condition for the coca boom to be possible, which in turn, contributed to consolidating the political-military order of the FARC, thus configuring the aforementioned symbiotic relationship between coca, community and guerrilla.

On the other hand, Alex’s testimony shows that the relationship between the FARC and the community is asymmetrical and mediated by the coercion of an actor with a monopoly of force. In all of the stories about roads in which the FARC participated, this relationship is present, regardless of whether their initial demand came from the communities or from the guerrilla. However, in both cases coercion is not necessarily assumed as something negative, since there is a consensus that the roads “are good” because they “bring development” or “progress.” In this respect, the expression “voluntarily forced” by a peasant referring to the participation of peasant communities in the coca marches of the mid-1990s applies (Ramírez 2001, 153).

The link between the JACs and the FARC is important for understanding the asymmetric power relations between actors. As in other cases (Larrat-Smith 2020), the JACs in Puerto Guzmán were instrumental in expanding and maintaining the territorial dominance of a subversive actor. Puerto Guzmán has more than two hundred veredas (rural settlements), most of which have JACs that are grouped into a municipal association. In the context of the conflict, these organizations served as intermediaries between the communities and the guerrilla and channeled collective and individual demands. In turn, the FARC exercised control over their functioning, validating the appointment of their members, demanding accountability from their representatives and using them as a means of transmitting rules to the communities.

The obligation to participate in the opening and maintenance of highways, roads and bridges is consigned in the “Manuals of coexistence for the good functioning of the communities,” a sort of guerrilla civil code that contemplated norms on almost all aspects of daily life, and whose transgression implied punishments ranging from the paying fines to trials (Cancimance 2017, 147). The specific forms of individual and collective participation in infrastructure works are not set out in these manuals. The testimonies collected, meanwhile, show that these modes varied according to the type of work or the commander on duty and could include contributions in money, in labor (through mingas coordinated by the JACs), or a combination of both. Just as the types of contributors changed according to their capital or income, the contributions were distributed unequally. Thus, for example, the number of days of work (or their equivalent in money) that a farmer was obliged to contribute depended on the amount of cattle or coca production on his land. In any case, the testimonies agree that “everyone” (with the exception of children, although some argue that they too attended the mingas) had to contribute regardless of their economic or social status.

The power relations present in the construction of roads were reproduced and reinforced in their use through the controls on access and circulation. These controls included flows of people, information, money and merchandise, and were an essential element of the local order established by the guerrilla. These manuals abound in detailed rules on access, settlement and mobility, including, among others, permanent curfews for human and livestock transport, carrying letters of recommendation from the JACs and restrictions on the entry of outsiders. A single rule, which obliged people who came to settle in the region to remain in the municipality for one year, reflects the severe level of control to which people were subjected by the guerrilla. To this is added the creation of roadblocks on the river and highways and, later, during the bloody years of war with the army, mined access roads to their rearguard territories.

The guerrilla’s control over the direction and flow of the roads shows how they constituted technologies of government, similar to the function of state-built roads. Another common element in the modus operandi of both actors has to do with the characteristics of the roads themselves. In its construction and maintenance, a road requires participation and coordination (in many cases among several villages), as well as a certain degree of centralization in technical and financial decisions. However, the fact that the guerrilla’s operational means resemble those of the state does not mean, as previously mentioned, that the actors are comparable in their goals or in their capacities. The latter is tangible in the characteristics of the roads built by the JACs under FARC coordination or surveillance. Although these roads are of different in terms of extension and materials, some with bridges or concrete culverts, most of them are dirt roads opened by hand or with bulldozers that require regular maintenance and are suitable only for 4x4 vehicles. Even so, as illustrated in the previous section, they contributed to the process of local state building. This process is not linear or progressive; on the contrary, as we will see below, it is a process subject to cycles of expansion, contraction and conflict, which in turn are materialized and made visible in the infrastructure.

Material Layers of Time

The roads built with FARC participation show a process of acceleration of human and non-human flows during the coca boom. In this sense, as Alex notes, the demand for roads was driven by the need to “go faster.” This alludes specifically to technological changes and their effects on construction techniques and mobility. Such transformations are well captured in the transition from the pick-axe to the bulldozer in the opening of the Galilea - La Esmeralda trail, described in the previous section. The arrival of the bulldozer ushered in an era of the opening of roads, some of which were built by widening existing bridle paths. The opening of roads involved the construction of bridges and culverts, and sometimes required the work of engineers, in addition to machinery operators.

Memories of the coca boom cannot be disassociated from the image of bulldozers opening roads between villages or giving access to farms and ports on the rivers that cross Puerto Guzmán, whose territory covers an area three times larger than that of a city like Bogotá. The satellite images reveal the proliferation of these roads, which together evoke a phase of spatiotemporal compression typical of capitalist dynamics (Harvey 1990) or state expansion, only in this case the geography and political economy of infrastructure are linked to the action of a non-state actor. These images also reveal the drastic transformation of the landscape, which, with the clearing of forests to open coca fields and cattle ranches in areas adjacent to the roads, in a few years turned into vast expanses of pastureland. This relationship between roads, colonization and deforestation was not a phenomenon specific to the guerrilla order, and its causes can be traced to a political economy of deforestation with deep roots in the historical dynamics of colonization in the Amazon (Revelo-Rebolledo 2019). While in the context of coca and the FARC these dynamics participated in the construction of the state in Puerto Guzmán, this process was very unstable and shaped by the armed conflict. The conflict profoundly disrupted the guerrilla order, and deteriorated much of the social and material infrastructures that supported it.

The photograph in image 2 was taken in mid-July 2018, near the point where the 15-kilometer road from Galilea to La Esmeralda begins. The bulldozer and the ruined trail are material remains of the coca boom. It is difficult to imagine the traffic and human density that existed there and that is described in all the stories of the coca boom. “There were people, an innumerable amount,” Salomón tells us at the point where the photograph was taken, while he points to another place 100 meters to the left where the ruins of one of the camps of the 32nd Front remain. The feeling of emptiness and abandonment generated by this image accompanied us in many places along the route and contrasted with the very lively feeling of freedom of mobility following the departure of the guerrilla a few months ago. On several occasions along this route, Salomón was emphatic in saying that, had this event not taken place, we would possibly not have been able to reach this or other places, let alone take pictures.

Image 2.

Ruin of a bulldozer on the road from Galilea to La Emeralda, July 2018


The remains of the trail, the bulldozer and the FARC camp also speak of a period of war that began in the late 1990s and lasted for nearly a decade. With the increased presence of public forces and the fumigation of coca crops following the implementation of Plan Colombia and, later, with the military onslaught against the FARC under Plan Patriota, Puerto Guzmán, like many other municipalities in the country, became the scene of massive displacements, bombings, massacres and extrajudicial executions. With the massive exodus of the rural population, many villages were abandoned and their access roads were gradually taken back by the jungle due to lack of maintenance until they disappeared or returned to their previous condition of bridle paths.

Rivers, as well as roads built previously with the support of the guerrilla, were used by the army in the so-called “raking operations,” which literally consisted of sweeping the territory of anyone suspected of cooperating with the guerrilla. Some roads were destroyed in these counterinsurgency campaigns, as was the machinery used in their opening and maintenance. In turn, the FARC concentrated on warfare, employing some of the same tactics as the military and thus deepening the climate of anxiety and terror in the region. During those years, they prohibited the presidents of the JACs from receiving resources from the government, including those earmarked for road construction or maintenance. At the same time, with the implementation of the Territorial Consolidation Plan in 2007, the government began to implement a governance model in conflict zones that combined military intervention with development policies and the strengthening of institutional presence. This model also sought to regain the civilian population’s trust in the security forces through civil-military workdays and by assigning engineering battalions to road construction (García 2011).

The construction of roads as a territorial pacification strategy reflects a global shift in peacebuilding discourses, which have gone from considering infrastructure as a “post-conflict” policy to conceiving it as an effective stabilization mechanism in war scenarios (Bachmann and Schouten 2018). In the Colombian case, this mechanism also operates as a state legitimization strategy in areas outside its control. In this regard, Ramírez argues that the Consolidation Plan does not escape the governmental logic of justifying “not only the militarization of certain territories but also the lack of services and deficient institutionality due to the armed guerrilla presence” (2019, 10).

Although the military did not build roads in Puerto Guzmán, in the 2010s, and especially in the context of the Santos government’s peace talks with the FARC, public investment in this sector increased. During this period, some roads were opened with municipal resources allocated for the improvement rather than the building of roads, thus perpetuating their informal or illegal nature. For the most part, however, these resources were destined to recover existing roads or to transform them into more permanent roads by stabilizing them with wood and ballast (see image 3), a process that reflects the way in which one actor (in this case the state) co-opts and transform technologies built by other actors. Thus, many of the current state roads are superimposed on those previously built by the JACs and the guerrilla and reproduce the same relationships, as revealed by Alex’s complaint of the state’s modus operandi in the construction of roads:

The same thing is happening right now with the state we have, with the rulers we have. We are contributing with the manual labor; you see, the same thing is happening. We are providing labor for the work of carrying lumber, how many generations in that? Because that is how the politicians in the government are. We are putting in the material. And nobody takes care of us. That happened with the FARC. The FARC was given materials, the work was given to them, the money was given to them and there was corruption. We’re screwed.

Image 3.

Road in ballast, Las Perlas-La Ilusión sector, July 2018


Alex’s words are an effective testimony of the type of relationships, logics and actors present in the infrastructure, through which the state is built and materializes in a peripheral territory such as Puerto Guzmán. In the particular context in which this testimony is inscribed, it also speaks of the blurred boundaries between the ways in which antagonistic actors exercise power. By way of conclusion, in the final section, we will emphasize how the changing and uneven condition of the roads described by the testimonies and images throughout the text evidence ruptures, overlaps and continuities between different orders, while revealing the discontinuous, fragmented and oscillating nature of the state at its margins.


The roads in Puerto Guzmán are very uneven in shape and quality. In a short distance, it is common to find interspersed stretches of banqueos (mud roads) and gravel roads of different lengths and widths, and in different states of preservation or deterioration. In some cases, such as the trail from Galilea to La Esmeralda, the road becomes a path; in others, the jungle closes in until it disappears completely. The condition of these infrastructures is changeable. In the rainy season, some dirt stretches become impassable quagmires and others in ballast threaten to return to their previous condition (see image 4), a situation that is accentuated by the poorly drained clay soils of the Amazon plain. At this time of year, mingas to clean drains, fill ditches or repair bridges are vital to avoid isolation. Also, in some veredas, permanent or temporary roadblocks are set up to charge tolls to trucks carrying timber, livestock or other heavy loads. In addition to this climatic seasonality, there are political events, booms and depressions which shape the life cycle of the infrastructure.

Image 4.

Banqueo, La Ilusión-Cerrito sector, July 2018


The uneven and changing condition of roads is both an effect and material testimony of the existence of different orders and actors, as well as of their interactions, transitions and continuities. Some pathways are the result of the coexistence in time and space of these orders and actors. Others have originated in the transition from one order to another or as an effect of the technological changes linked to them. On occasion, the material substrate of some serves as the basis for the construction of others, such as when a muddy road is transformed into a gravel road or the latter evolves into a concrete or paved road. In these cases, an obsolete or outdated road disappears under a new one and so on, forming a series of superimposed infrastructures of different composition and duration.

The purpose of this article was to illustrate how the opening and mutations of transport infrastructures in a context of conflict tell a different narrative of local state-building processes. As technologies of mobility, control and territorial legibility, roads are an essential element in the expansion and maintenance of state power. However, approaching the relationships, actors and dynamics that produce them depict the state as a process of co-production that is not situated in an apparatus that holds the monopoly of power, that does not necessarily radiate in a center-periphery sense, and that is not reduced to institutional or governmental action. In the context of the FARC and the coca economy, the geography and political economy of the roads also allows us to refute the association between the absence of the state and illegality or subversion, or of these as an obstacle to the construction of the state. On the other hand, “seeing” the state from the everyday practices of making and maintaining infrastructure allows the decentering of relations that make the state or through which it materializes, but also to account for its asymmetrical and sometimes violent nature. Finally, in its heterogeneous, changing and fragile condition, infrastructure also speaks of the unequal and discontinuous nature of the state, as well as of the conflictive relationship with its margins.



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[1] Some authors that endorse this view of the state include Safford and Palacios (2002), González (1977), Pécaut (1987) and Bushnell (1993).

[2] The National Fund for Neighborhood Roads was created by the central government in 1960 with the aim of building rural roads in areas with poor access. It was a dependency of the Ministry of Public Works (later the Ministry of Transportation) until its final liquidation in 2003.

[3] In this paper we use the term community in the sense used by the inhabitants of the municipality, which refers to the population that is not part of the government, the guerrilla or other political or institutional actor.

[4] To protect the identity of persons cited in the paper, their names appear with pseudonyms.

[5] Among the actors involved in the opening of roads, the community generally refers to the JACs, while the administration is associated with different instances of the state such as the municipality, the department and the central government.