Photographing Cocaine's Journey from the Fields to Nostrils Around the World


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Photographing Cocaine's Journey from the Fields to Nostrils Around the World

Carlos Villalón's upcoming book, 'Coca: The Lost War,' follows the coca plant from the fields of Colombia to the murders of Mexico.

Indigenous people sailing in the Amazon. Colombia, 2015. All photos by Carlos Villalón

This article originally appeared on VICE Colombia.

Coca plants have been demonized for centuries, and the cultures that consider them sacred and medicinal have often been labelled drug traffickers. The elders of the Peruvian Amazonian Indian tribe Huitoto once told me how their God even punished them through the leaf: "From now on, as punishment, I will take the coca away from your people and pass it into the hands of the white man. The plant will bring pain, misery, and rivers of blood wherever it goes."


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For my latest book, I wanted to follow the coca plant across an entire continent. From the Andes tribes who see it as a gift from God, to the Colombian farmers who process it into cocaine base and use it as currency in stores and pharmacies. And, of course, all the way onto the bloodbath it spirals into once it's finally turned into cocaine and heads north through Central America and Mexico, before eventually landing in the hands of those who use it for recreational purposes.

This is a selection of my work.

This series is part of a book called Coca: The Lost War, out later this year on Penguin Random House.

A man smelling coca leaves. El Alto, Bolivia, 2007.

A man ingesting mambe, a mixture made of pulverized coca leaves. Amazon rainforest, Colombia, 2015.

The body of a woman killed in a drug-related feud. El Palo, Cauca, Colombia, 2011.

Members of the López family weep after the death of Luis Felipe, a 17-year-old man who was murdered while waiting for his fiancée on the street. At the beginning of 2011, the Secretary of the Interior, Francisco Blake Mora, announced that tourist destination Acapulco had become the second most violent city after Ciudad Juárez. Acapulco, Mexico, 2011.

A shirtless drug trafficker weighs bags of coca that farmers have brought to sell. In the package between his legs, he has enough money to buy 300 pounds. The farmers, despite their moral objection to the drug trade, say they have no other option. Santa Fe, Colombia, 2002.

Forensic investigators cordon off a street to investigate the murder of a young gang member in one of the city's most dangerous areas. Medellin, Colombia, 2009.

A naked women with a tray of cocaine at a high society party. Santiago de Chile, 2013.

Children with machetes working in the coca fields. Aldea de la Playa, Colombia, 2003.

Samanta, a drug-ballad singer (or narcocorrido), prepares to go onstage. Reynosa, Mexico, 2009.

A gang member mixes cocaine, lidocaine, and caffeine in a blender. One kilogram of cocaine is heavily diluted with chemical agents to produce three kilograms. Medellin, Colombia, 2009.

A man injecting a speedball, a combination of cocaine and heroin. South Bronx, New York, 2015.

Pulverised coca leaves, also know as mambe. Colombia, 2015.

Each week, prostitutes who live along the River Caguán are forced by FARC to undergo medical examination. Without this, they're not permitted to work the following week. The prostitutes pay for the consultation with base cocaine that they've been given by their customers. Peñas Coloradas, Colombia, 2002.

A health worker tries to wake a man suffering from an overdose. New York, United States, 2015.