BUENAVENTURA, Colombia – In recent months, the city of Buenaventura, which is home to Colombia’s most important port, has made headlines throughout the world for its upsurge in violence.
In 2014 alone, authorities have reported 88 cases of murder and seven cases of dismemberment, which have caused panic among the 377,105 residents of the city, which handles 53% of the country’s international trade.
Additionally, the National Registry of Missing Persons reported 78 forced disappearances in 2013, while the Office of the Ombudsman reported the displacement of more than 5,000 families by narco-traffickers in this city in the department of Valle del Cauca.
The witnesses to these crimes in low-income neighborhoods prefer to remain silent to avoid being displaced, tortured or murdered, thereby increasing impunity, according to the Office of the Ombudsman and international organizations such as Human Rights Watch.
In February, about 30,000 residents held a march, asking domestic and international organizations to show solidarity with them during the situation and help stem the tide of violence that’s behind the city’s nickname of “the capital of terror,” according to local and international media outlets.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos ordered the city’s indefinite militarization on March 19 after various government officials called on his administration to take urgent measures to control the situation.
Since then, 2,400 soldiers and officers from the Colombian Army, Navy and National Police have been working to ensure public order.
The main reason for the violence during the past five years is the war between the criminal groups (Bacrim) “Los Urabeños” and “La Empresa,” according to Col. Roberto González, the commander of the 2nd Marine Infantry Brigade of Buenaventura.
The two Bacrim are combating each other by committing atrocities along drug-trafficking routes in this strategic area along the Pacific Coast.
“In the urban center, we have 400 men and in the rural area, 600, because the areas surrounding the city are home to the entire drug-trafficking chain, including crops, [drug] cooking facilities and the transportation of coca or narcotics to Central and North America,” González said.
González pointed out that about 10 years ago, the port was controlled by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) before security forces ousted them.
However, the city soon became a war zone among emerging groups vying for control of the cocaine trade. Bacrim have 242 members in the area, according to the National Police.
Security, part of the solution
Santos gave a positive assessment of the first two weeks of the militarization during an April 4 meeting of the Council of Ministers in Buenaventura.
By working together, they apprehended 136 members of these groups and reduce drug-related murders, Santos said, adding only one homicide has been reported since March 21.
González also highlighted the fight against drug trafficking through operations that have resulted in significant narcotics seizures, which hurt these groups financially.
This year, the Navy and the National Police have seized about four tons of cocaine, according to González.
The Attorney General’s Office will adopt new strategies to facilitate citizen complaints.
Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre said he will prioritize cases involving human rights violations that were documented in a report filed on March 20 by the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), which had visited the area late last year.
“These groups dismember their victims and throw human remains in the bay or in the mangroves that extend from its banks, or they bury them in clandestine graves, according to local residents and officials,” the HRW report states.
Despite the more than 2,000 investigations into cases of disappearance and forced displacement in Buenaventura by armed groups in the past 20 years, there haven’t been any convictions, according to HRW.
Montealegre said the Technical Investigation Corps (CTI) will intensify its work and develop a witness protection program.
Buenaventura residents ask for social investments
Buenaventura’s residents are insisting the Colombian government invest in social programs to prevent youths from engaging in crime to survive.
“We need jobs, education and food for our children,” said María Rengifo, a 52-year-old resident of Pueblo Nuevo, one of the city’s most conflict-ridden neighborhoods. “There are people who resort to crime out of pure desperation. A working family does not need to carry out wrongful acts.”
The Navy has been conducting comprehensive operations in the areas of health, social and educational assistance and in the introduction of infrastructure in a city where 80% of the population lives below the poverty line.
During his most recent visit to Buenaventura on April 4, Santos said the indefinite militarization would be followed by a “major social investment” that includes the construction of schools, universities, sports venues and housing, in addition to providing residents with health care.
Extortion and threats on the rise
Business owners in the port region complain of ongoing extortion by gang members who threaten to kill those who refuse to pay the so-called “vaccine.”
Extortion exceeds 40% of the total cost of doing business, leading to the increasing closures of businesses in recent months, according to the Buenaventura Chamber of Commerce.
“Whenever they want, ‘Los Chulos’ come at night and take all of my money,” said a young man who works selling sweets on the tourist pier and whose name is being withheld for security reasons. “I make about $30,000 pesos (US$15) on a good day, and they threaten me and say that if I don’t work or if I try to leave early, they’ll kill me. And there are a lot of others in my same situation here.”
Spokespersons for the port’s 2,500 fishermen denounced micro-extortion, while the Office of the Ombudsman reported there are neighborhoods in which “vaccines” are paid so residents can enter and leave their homes.
Among the Navy’s strategies for combating this crime is the promotion of complaints through its radio station Marina Estéreo Buenaventura 105.9 FM, where listeners can report what’s happening on the streets without the fear of being recognized.