A refugee girl outside her home in a settlement for displaced people in Villavicencio.

AlertNet/TodayColombia – Escalating violence by armed groups and drug gangs has driven thousands of people from their homes in Colombia’s main port city of Buenaventura over the past two months, the United Nations has said.

During October and November, nearly 5,000 people living in eight neighbourhoods across Buenaventura have left their homes and moved to different parts of town, often moving from one slum area to another, in an attempt to escape drug turf wars and rising urban crime.

More than half the city’s 109 murders this year have taken place in the past 41 days, police figures show, and the government has drafted in extra police and soldiers to tackle the crime wave in a city with a jobless rate of 50 percent.

“The number of people who continue to be displaced from urban areas in Buenaventura has increased to 4,800, due to fighting, threats, restrictions placed on peoples’ movements, murders, and other violent incidents,” the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Colombia said in its latest report.

According to OCHA, on Nov. 13 alone 161 families, totalling 660 people, left their homes in a poor neighbourhood in Buenaventura following drug-fuelled violence and the distribution of threatening pamphlets to local residents by drug gang members.

Some uprooted families have sought shelter in the homes of relatives and friends in Buenaventura, while others are living in hostels, the OCHA report said.

The city of Buenaventura, almost every inch of which is controlled by paramilitaries. Thousands have been killed and forced disappearances are frequent. /Photo: michael norby, brian fitzpatrick

Buenaventura, lying on the Pacific coast, is a key smuggling point for cocaine shipped by sea through Central America and Mexico en route to the United States, making it a hotspot for drug traffickers.

Drug gangs and criminal groups fight over control of Buenaventura’s waterside areas from where they can store and ship cocaine. This often puts communities right in the middle of drug turf wars.

Buenaventura is home to some of Colombia’s poorest slums, spread on the outskirts and along the city’s river banks, where many live in precariously built warrens of wooden shacks on stilts. Roughly half the city’s 400,000 residents are jobless and 80 percent live in poverty.

Unemployment and poverty make city youths easy prey for drug gangs looking to recruit messengers, informants and fishermen to help them ship cocaine to northern markets from  Buenaventura. According to OCHA’s report, some families are also leaving their homes to avoid their children being forcibly recruited into criminal gangs.

“The level of poverty in Buenaventura is shameful for a country like Colombia, which has the money,” the head of the U.N. human rights office in Colombia, Todd Howland, told the local press after a visit to the city earlier this month.

Colombia is considered a middle-income country and has had robust economic growth and record foreign investment in recent years.Yet local authorities in Buenaventura are overstretched and cannot meet all the needs of the newly displaced, OCHA said.

“Local authorities face a challenge in the delivery of emergency humanitarian aid due to the magnitude of the emergency and because the displaced population is dispersed,”  OCHA’s report said.

Thousands of poor families live in precariously built riverside slums in Colombia’s main port city of Buenaventura along the Pacific Coast.

More than half the 109 murders reported in Buenaventura so far this year have taken place during the last 41 days, according to police figures.

In a bid to quell the violence, the Colombian government says it is sending more police and soldiers to Buenaventura and that nearly 50 gang members operating in the city have been captured in recent months, some belonging to former right-wing paramilitary groups.

The local mayor says he has distributed 1,100 humanitarian aid parcels with food and cooking utensils to uprooted families.

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