She’s the Governor With the Hardest Job in Latin America
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because one battle in a long conflict may soon be won.
She wears a rose gold Apple watch on her left wrist, while her black Madeline shoes and horn-rimmed glasses have a nerdy-schoolgirl vibe. But then there are the indigenous beads and feather earrings, signifying the Andean respect for pachamama — Mother Earth. This is the 39-year-old governor who is supposed to transform one of Colombia’s most war-torn regions — lands rich in cocaine’s base ingredient, the coca plant? Who is supposed to make Colombia’s promise of peace a reality?
Politics is like “a board game,” Sorrel Aroca tells OZY while seated on a hand-carved wooden stool in her governor’s chambers in Mocoa, Putumayo’s capital. “But that’s the only way you can bring about change in this country. If I had another way, I wouldn’t use politics.” But she is in politics — and she’s among a group of newly inaugurated governors charged with managing the transition as the country’s relationship with decades-long drug conflict shifts. Colombia’s multi-actor armed conflict has claimed more than 220,000 lives since 1964.
The conflict isn’t likely to fully dissipate, experts say — indeed, United Nations figures show a bump of around 39 percent in acreage under coca cultivation between 2014 and 2015. But a major chapter is about to end. In June, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and President Juan Manuel Santos’ government agreed at last on the conditions for a bilateral cease-fire. Now, as the government tries to impose some legitimate authority on regions long ruled by FARC guerrillas, Aroca faces some of the thorniest problems. Her region, Putumayo, is FARC territory, says Daniel M. Rico, researcher with Bogotá-based Fundación Ideas para la Paz. “They’ve managed to penetrate the political agenda,” he says of the the handful of armed groups involved in the narcotics business. Even if FARC is quelled, Rico notes, a number of other organizations will remain.
She saw young girls wielding AK-47s.
Aroca has a strategy, the pillar of which is building an alternative economy to coca production. She’s also prioritizing health, education, children’s rights and caring for marginalized groups. The real challenge? “Farmers want to get out of coca, but what happens? There’s no other economic alternative,” says Heraldo Vallejo, Aroca’s agriculture secretary. This is increasingly true in the wake of a recent oil price crash, which tanked the region’s main legal export. Aroca’s crop substitution program, by her estimate, will cost $133 million up front and $33 million annually. That’s a lot for a region with a population of 400,000, Aroca confesses to a group of visiting farmers in her government chambers. But for the U.S.? Far cheaper. “If you really want to resolve the coca problem, you need at least a decade of serious financing,” says Maria Torres, an expert on Colombian drug policy who has written on Putumayo.
Government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, say the national government largely supports Aroca’s plans, but wants farmers to strip away all coca immediately. Farmers prefer gradually removing coca as alternative crops start to bear fruit. That disagreement presents challenges, since the crop substitution program, Aroca’s make-or-break policy, is managed through Bogotá. “Aroca and her government are spectators,” Rico says, in an echo of Colombia’s perpetual Achilles’ heel — the divide between capital and periphery. “She could have the integrity, a good proposal, but she lacks resources, so her capacity for transformation is limited.”
But Aroca is sharp, savvy and cosmopolitan, equipped to negotiate both city and countryside issues. Raised around Putumayo in the Gabriel García Márquez–ian boomtown of Orito, Aroca grew up in an environment notorious for extortion. In the town of 45,000, owners of small shops can be hit up to three times a month by three separate criminal groups. Orito has ridden booms and busts: rubber, petroleum and, since Aroca’s childhood in the 1980s, coca.
Hoping to understand the why behind her country’s violent psyche, the self-described humanist spent her college years delving into the writings of thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Nietzsche and Fromm. Toward the end of her law studies in Bogotá, when the Pastrana government opened up a (doomed) peace process with FARC, Aroca met with guerrilla groups on behalf of a university research project. She saw young girls wielding AK-47s, and recalls meeting a beautiful female soldier. “How is it that a woman as beautiful as you are can be a guerrilla?” Aroca asked. The girl replied that she had no other choice.
After college, Aroca began work with the Orito mayor’s office. In 2007, at barely 30 years old, she ran for the mayorship herself. The political machine nearly skinned her alive, and she lost by huge margins to the former mayor’s wife. Aroca departed politics for the private sector — consulting for the state oil company Ecopetrol — but she maintained her connection to communities. In 2015, the farmers’ associations approached her. They had been watching her and wanted her to run for governor. She did, as an independent, beating the main parties by nearly 50 percent. The victory was symbolic, a “vindication,” says Torres. The area from which Aroca hails is stereotyped as being home to “the sons and daughters of cocaleros and whores,” says Torres; Aroca disproved that stereotype.
It’s the end of a long day, and Aroca’s armored Toyota, trailed by a police escort, pulls up. Her rush to the SUV indicates her need for constant vigilance. She dodged an attack on her life during her mayoral campaign and has accepted being hunted as part of political theatrics. “I too am a daughter of this war,” she says. Proof lies in her decision, during the election, to send her 7-year-old daughter away, for safety. When the victory rolled in, her daughter came back, in time for her mother to return to the front lines of peacemaking.