Birds of Passage: A new film sheds light on how narcotics have affected indigenous communities in Latin America

After directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s last collaboration, Embrace of the Serpent, won best foreign film nomination at the Oscars—the only Colombian film to achieve this recognition—the film world waited to see what they would do next. In Embrace, the filmmakers explored the experience of indigenous people in the Amazon as white men extracted rubber and local knowledge of medicinal plants. In this film, indigenous people are once again at the center of the story as they fight against the uneven spread of costs and benefits in another relationship of natural resource extraction: narcotics.

It begins with the drug trade in Colombia and the family. Not The Sopranos-kind of family, but one that was fundamentally concerned with protecting the humble benefits that came from producing marijuana— the wild weed the gringos were so eager to buy. It was the 1960’s in La Guajira, the northernmost tip of Colombia and Venezuela, and the indigenous Wayuu were used to trading as a way of life. It has long been part of their survival in this harsh desert environment.

They were first courted by the new Peace Corps volunteers that President Kennedy had set up to fight communism in the region. As they spread pamphlets and advised the indigenous people to “say no to communism,” they also asked to buy marijuana. Soon, the young Americans introduced the Wayuu to their North American connections, who opened up small drug runs in propeller planes between Colombia and the United States. At the time, marijuana was a controlled but legal substance in the United States. However, the Wayuu quickly discovered that it was much more profitable than coffee, whiskey and the other commodities they usually traded to eke out a living in this remote area.

The indigenous people of La Guajira hold the family and clan as the highest of all values, and in those early days of the drug trade they tried to make sure that the wealth from the new in-demand crop remained local. It was a naive attempt to protect their community, said Gallego, at the Canadian premier of her and Guerra’s new movie, Birds of Passage at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is a story rich in color, indigenous ritual and language. It has also been described as an accomplished cinematic remaking of the drug crime genre from the perspective of indigenous people.

There is a common thread across the experiences of indigenous people in Latin America with extractive industries, which this movie explores through a Wayuu family that sees its fortunes rise
and fall when they start doing business with alijunas (foreigners). The familiar arc begins with an
economic boom in local communities fed by outside demand. In Colombia, this was known as the Bonanza Marimbera, a period of huge growth in the 1970’s and early 80’s along the northern coast of the continent. The location was ideal for the cultivation and transport of marijuana because of the proximity to the Caribbean and northern consumers. Larger transactions are followed by institutionalized corruption, violence and eventually massacres between families and clans that become divided by business with outsiders. The type of commodities at stake matter less than what they share in their extractive story. There is an almost predictable arc towards the destruction of culture, environment and life. A similar story, for example, could be told of the indigenous tribes in the Ecuadorean Amazon and their experience with Chevron/Texaco and oil. Gallego and Guerra aptly titled their film Birds of Passage, referring to the local name for drug runners who arrive, take what they want, and leave ruin in their wake.

About half way through the movie the first bodies appear larger than life before the audience, faithful to that arc of destruction. In the darkness of the theatre, the bright beams of a Ford pick-up truck light up the bloodied skin and clothes, then the faces of a group of indigenous peasants who had been making their way down a mountain with donkeys loaded with bags of marijuana. They are all on the ground, eyes wide open, victims of a recent killing spree.

My first instinct was to start counting bodies. As soon as I got to four, I thought to myself, OK, this would have counted as a massacre. Although this is a random number, and not one defined by international law, it is the product of my earliest experience with Colombian drug violence in the United Nations Center for Human Rights, where I worked as a researcher for the Special Rapporteur on Summary and Arbitrary Executions. That was 1989, when cocaine had emerged as a parallel economy, and narco-trafficking related violence produced the world’s highest murder rates in Colombia. At the United Nations, our team had to scrutinize reports of killings, sifting through a large number of interviews and documents to create lists of massacres throughout the country. Reports of four or more extrajudicial killings counted as a massacre. This meant that some deaths would automatically become more visible than others through the Special Rapporteur’s testimony and ensuing discussion in international fora.

Awareness of the conditions of the indigenous people looms large—in the movie and in the region. I asked the director to talk about the life of the Wayuu people today following that early bonanza, and the ways they have been visible or invisible to the state and society. Gallego said that Canadians probably knew more about the Wayuu than an average person like her from Bogota. They are an invisible ethnic group that the average Colombian only hears about when the media reports on the high rates of child malnutrition in the state, she said. The Colombian government and the World Food Program say that in 2014, one child under the age of five died every week of hunger in La Guajira, the majority Wayuu. However, national NGOs put those numbers much higher, at 1,000 children per year, and warn that hunger and lack of access to water made worse by climate change have put the survival of the Wayuu nation in imminent danger.

Films about indigenous people are fraught with issues of representation and protection of intellectual property. They run the risk of seizing stories from the hands of their protagonists for the benefit of the filmmakers. I asked Gallego how they navigated this tension so that the film making enterprise did not become another form of extraction that displaced benefits from a local community to a global audience. “The Wayuu are one of the most capitalist societies I know,” she said. Everything had to be negotiated with them in advance, including production jobs and training in filmmaking so they would learn to record and tell their own stories. Many of the actors are not trained, and were recruited from the Wayuu community, and close to 80 percent of the movie is in Wayuunaiki rather than Spanish or English. Advance press viewing of the film was closely guarded during the festival, but the very first screening took place far from any festival. It was for the Wayuu themselves in La Guajira, as it should have been. Seats were set up in a central square and thousands arrived to see the movie. They were the first audience to give a positive review to the portrayal of their story. After hearing the audience reactions in Toronto, it was clear that Gallego and Guerra had also succeeded in reaching the sensibilities of a wider public.

Originally published in Global American, Sept 28, 2018. Available here: