Three months after the UN called on Colombia to take “urgent measures” to curb violence in the Pacific port city of Buenaventura, the government has yet to contain the swell of violence that killed six over the weekend alone and forced protests earlier this week.
The humanitarian crisis that has manifested in the port city led to the visit from UN Human Rights Commissioner Todd Howland in November 2013. During this visit, the UN official called for “urgent measures” to resolve the intolerable levels of violence that have plagued the city since 2012 when neo-paramilitary organization the “Urabeños” forced out local criminal groups aligned with the Urabenos’ rival, the “Rastrojos.”
Two days later, authorities arrested what they said were 33 members of the Urabeños, but overall the the government’s response appears to have been ineffective.
The need for action in Buenaventura could not be more immediate as armed criminal gangs fight for control of the illegal drug trafficking routes that the port offers. On February 19, a journalist was assassinated in the city and over the following weekend El Espectador newspaper reported that a further 6 murders had taken place.
Figures from the regional ombudsman’s office confirm that recorded homicides in the city rose from 150 in 2012 to 187 in 2013 or 25%. Mario Angulo from the NGO Process of Black Communities (PCN) told Colombia Reports that there have been 40 murders in 2014 so far, indicating that there will be a further increase unless authorities exercise greater control of the city.
Buenaventura’s homicide rate
Figures on homicides only tell half the story as mass poverty and displacement also contribute to the crisis. The Afro-Caribbean Solidarity Network state that despite 50% of Colombia’s exports passing through Buenaventura’s port 80% of the population live below the poverty line.
The forced displacement of families from in and around Buenaventura is also alarmingly high. Figures from both international and national agencies such as the UN and the ombudsman’s office have reported cases where entire communities are forced to flee their homes.
The ombudsman’s office confirmed that on November 6 2013 4,199 people fled district 12 of Buenaventura to avoid violent clashes between criminal gangs.
The influence of international trade
Buenaventura has a population of roughly 400,000 and has suffered from the presence of illegal armed groups for over 15 years. With regards to displacement in the Buenaventura area, Mario Angulo said that ” up until November last year there has been 126,000 people displaced, a frightening figure.”
Buenaventura is Colombia’s second largest and most important port. Situated on the Pacific Coast, the Buenaventura port is connected to 300 other ports around the world. It is also Colombia’s most important point for trading within the Pacific Alliance — a regional trading bloc consisting of Mexico, Peru, Chile and Colombia — and the United States.
Gimena Sanchez from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) explained to Colombia Reports how the increased volume in international trade is also proving to be an important factor related to the crisis.
According to Sanchez, “Buenaventura is modernizing very much at the expense of a majority population that is Afro-descendant” and that “these displacements are taking place both due to the fighting and also because of commercial interests in those areas that people are situated.”
Angulo explained how districts 5 and 6 of Buenaventura were singled out as areas of high displacement due to the installation of a new port terminal and storage facilities for containers.
Due to increased trading relations between the US and Colombia brought through their free trade agreement, Buenaventura represents a major point of interaction of US foreign policy. The United States and Colombia agreed on a Labor Action Plan (LAP) to improve the rights of Colombian workers which Sanchez explained was “put forward specifically because [the US] knew there were serious labor concerns in Colombia.” However, the LAP has not appeared to achieve its intended goals and Sanchez explains that the US should “uphold” its promise it made to Colombia’s labor movement.
Many cops, little change
The current response of the government has so far focused largely on the violent aspect of the crisis with questionable impact. Angulo said ” two weeks ago 600 new police officers arrived here patrolling overhead and through the neighborhood but there are still murders. Last weekend there were six murders.” Angulo added Buenaventura “is the headquarters of the Pacific Naval Force and the seventh district of the police force. This then does not justify the full control of neighborhoods and communities by illegal armed groups.”
The local communities of Buenaventura gathered together for a march last week titled “The burial of violence in Buenaventura” in which approximately 20,000 people took to the streets to protest against the violence. The the aim of the march was to “visualize the problems that exist in Buenaventura and generate awareness in civil & military authorities” said Angulo who was one of the march’s chief organizers.
Angulo said that the necessary response requires the government to “accept and display the situation as an emergency.” Furthermore “social policy is needed as well as the armed forces performing their constitutional obligations.”
The need for an improved social policy is not confined to Buenaventura. In November 2013 Ombudsman for the city of Cali echoed these arguments as he claimed “a total failure of social institutions” were preventing the citizens of Cali from being able to “learn grow and prosper.”
In the last 48 hours El Pais has reported that the local council of Buenaventura has begun discussing a “Pact for peaceful coexistence and citizen security”. Time will tell whether this initiative will help contain the humanitarian crisis in Buenaventura but it is clear that the Colombian government needs to deepen its conceptual understanding of the problems that underpin crises like the one in Buenaventura.
- Interview with Gimena Sanchez (WOLA)
- Interview with Mario Angulo (PCN)
- Interview with Ombudsman’s office for Valle del Cauca
- Buenaventura, Colombia: Where Free Trade Meets Mass Graves (NACLA)
- War for Cocaine Corridors Consumes Colombia’s Busiest Port (Insight Crime)
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