Residents of Buenaventura have become prisoners of war in the battle for Colombia’s primary cocaine port. They are confined within invisible borders, silenced by macabre atrocities and live at the mercy of alienated youths armed and empowered by drug trafficking warlords.
Fear and desperation pervade the ramshackle communities that make up the frontlines in the battle for Buenaventura. Life has become a litany of horrors in which mass graves, dismembered bodies, torture and sexual abuse are commonplace.
The city’s neighborhoods have been divided up into territories run either by a criminal organization known as “La Empresa” (The Business), or narco-paramilitary invaders from the north, the Urabeños.
“There is no freedom,” said a community council leader from one of the affected neighborhoods, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals. “We are closed in — held hostage in our own neighborhoods.”
Those that cross the borders from one area into another are often never seen again, whether they have any connection to the armed groups or not. Many simply disappear, hurled into the mass graves residents say dot the city, or washed away by the tide. Those that are found are often found in pieces, with both sides in the war employing dismemberment as a chilling terror tactic.
“Not a day goes by in Buenaventura in which you don’t hear machine gun fire,” said a leader of an Afro-Colombian organization, who also did not want to be named for security reasons. “In the night people have their dinner with lead, and in the morning they wake up with lead.”
While many of the drug traffickers directing this war are from outside the region, it is youths from the city neighborhoods who serve as the primary fighters. They are recruited with the offer of a weapon, prestige and a wage.
“At first it was purely people from outside [the city], who began dismembering people and recruiting youths — which was easy because the youths don’t have work,” said the Afro-Colombian leader. “Now, the armed actors, those who are committing this violence, are our people, our neighbors.
The violence has been concentrated in strategic points that are home to the city’s most vulnerable population — coastal neighborhoods of crudely built wooden huts on stilts that sink into the sea at high tide. The neighborhoods’ locations offer the armed groups access to the sea and the waterways where drugs are moved out and arms and men can be moved in.
These slums also have a minimal state presence and a population living in dire poverty without education, jobs or basic public services. Such conditions have not just drawn young men into the conflict, but also women and children, who residents and security forces say are increasingly being recruited by gangs to hide and move weapons and contraband, and to act as scouts and lookouts.
Once drawn into the armed groups, residents say the youths sack their own communities with violent abandon, squeezing the local economy dry through extortion, sexually abusing any girl or woman that catches their eye and silencing anyone that challenges their authority.
The Criminal Jewel of Colombia’s Pacific Coast
The reason for this violence lies in Buenaventura’s strategic location: the city is one of the most prized territories in the Colombian underworld.
Located on the southern Pacific coast in the department of Valle del Cauca, it is surrounded by a mangrove labyrinth consisting of kilometers of waterways connecting the cocaine processing laboratories of the 30th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to the open sea.
According to the Coast Guard, an estimated 250 tons of cocaine moves through these waterways each year, the majority in speedboats destined for Panama and Costa Rica. The city itself is the beating heart of this trade: it is where the deals are made, logistics are arranged and money is laundered.
While the city has suffered for over 15 years at the hands of drug traffickers, guerrilla militias and paramilitary groups, the current round of conflict can be traced to the fall and rise of two criminal groups that have dominated the country’s underworld since the demobilization of Colombia’s paramilitary movement: the Rastrojos and the Urabeños.
In the criminal free-for-all that followed the breakup of the paramilitaries, the Rastrojos were quick to establish a presence in Buenaventura as they expanded outwards from their Cali stronghold into the rest of the Pacific region.
“When they arrived, they created a criminal gang to defend their strategic routes and their criminal activities — they created La Empresa,” Buenaventura Police Commander Colonel Oscar Gomez Heredia told InSight Crime.
The group recruited heavily from former paramilitaries, ex-members of FARC urban militias and common criminals.
“They came here with their command and control structures, offering the wages to recruit from members of criminal organizations,” said Colonel Gomez.
However, La Empresa was more than just an armed wing of the Rastrojos. Among its founding members were several local businessmen with a foot in both the legal world and the underworld. The organization became a formidable alliance of national drug traffickers with a local power structure composed of paramilitaries and business elites.
La Empresa expanded rapidly and assumed control not only of transnational drug trafficking routes but also of extortion, illegal mining and local drug sales. The group even exerted a monopoly over the movement and sale of staple goods such as fruit and vegetables, dairy products and meat.
By the start of 2012, the nationwide criminal empire built by the Rastrojos dominated the Colombian underworld, and Buenaventura was one of that empire’s most lucrative fiefdoms. However, the Rastrojos’ success was to prove short-lived.
In May 2012, the group’s principal leader, Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” surrendered to US authorities. With security forces acting on information provided by Comba, the organization imploded rapidly, and by the time its founding member Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” was captured in June that year, the group’s days as Colombia’s most formidable drug trafficking organization were finished.
The implosion of the Rastrojos as a national organization cut off vital supply lines for La Empresa — most critically their financial backing. La Empresa was suddenly vulnerable.
At the time, the Rastrojos’ principal rivals on a national level were the Urabeños, a drug trafficking army descended from paramilitary blocs in the north. With the implosion of the Rastrojos, the Urabeños were quick to sense the opportunity in Buenaventura. However they began their task cautiously.
“They entered the city gradually,” said Colonel Gomez. “Initially they came without weapons to check out the corridors, to see how easily they could enter and what opportunities were on offer.”
After this initial period of reconnaissance, the Urabeños began to recruit local foot soldiers and arm them with the weapons they were moving into the city in bulk. The wages they offered dwarfed those paid by La Empresa, and soon they had amassed a force estimated by security forces to be 200 strong.
The opening shots of the war were fired on October 6, 2012, when Urabeños hitmen gunned down one of La Empresa’s main commanders in the street.
The murder was just the beginning. In that October alone, there were 33 registered murders, representing a quarter of the city’s total homicides that year. Body after body was found mutilated or missing a head or limbs. Between the start of October and the first weeks of November, there were ten mass displacements, with 5,495 people fleeing their homes, according to displacement monitoring group CODHES.
The Urabeños’ campaign was orchestrated by an alliance of Valle del Cauca drug traffickers who had united with the Urabeños to try to seize the region from the Rastrojos. At the head of the operation was Buenaventura native Orlando Gutierrez Rendon, alias “El Negro Orlando,” a now imprisoned former member of the Rastrojos who turned on them to become one of their chief tormentors.
La Empresa was left reeling by the Urabeños assault. After several key leaders were murdered, the group suffered a mass defection. Security forces estimated the Urabeños absorbed 70 percent of La Empresa in a matter of months, among them some of the group’s founding members. By January 2013, local media reported the Urabeños had assumed control of almost all of the region’s drug trafficking routes.
However, the Urabeños were unable to deliver the death blow to their rivals, and La Empresa began to regroup. The remaining leadership was rumored to have sought out financial backing and reinforcements from elsewhere in Valle and the fighting flared up once again.
By this time, the Urabeños were seemingly unable or unwilling to pay regular wages to the army they had amassed, leading to defections back to La Empresa. Security forces say La Empresa’s ranks have now been bolstered with breakaway Urabeños to such an extent that in its current incarnation it is essentially a dissident Urabeños faction.
A City Out of Control
Both groups have also been weakened by a series of arrests and security forces operations. The police now say that thanks to their efforts targeting the groups’ military and financial structures, the war is nearing an end, with both sides disorganized and struggling to fund the fighting.
“Today they are very fragmented in the sense that they don’t have the same leadership, command and control,” said Colonel Gomez.
However, the result, according to police, has been a wave of criminality perpetrated by youths cast adrift by their narco-paymasters and others keen to capitalize on the fear their names arouse.
“There has been a surge in new members but they do not have the philosophy of these groups, or the command structure. They simply take advantage of the collective sense that these criminal groups are present,” said Gomez.
One of the main indications of this has been extortion. According to the Navy’s specialist anti-extortion and kidnapping unit, the Gaula, while some extortion rackets are run on the orders of Urabeños and La Empresa commanders, the majority is now carried out by street level recruits acting independently because they have not been paid.
However, the core business the Urabeños and La Empresa are fighting over remains unaffected.
“The conflict has increased [the flow of drugs],” Pacific Coast Guard Commander Captain Carlos Delgado Yermanos told InSight Crime. “Despite the disputes, they have continued to control drug trafficking and maintain the routes.”
There are also numerous indications the violence that continues to rage is not merely a function of social breakdown and is still closely linked to territorial disputes between the two sides.
In December, authorities admitted that the Urabeños had brought in reinforcements from the region of Choco. Residents continue to report heavily armed paramilitaries seizing neighborhoods, forcing them to flee their homes. Dismembered bodies continue to appear floating in the bay, and reports of massacres linked to La Empresa and the Urabeños are now spreading to rural areas outside the city.
While discipline in the ranks of the groups may be breaking down, even the police admit there is no shortage of young, desperate men raised in poverty and violence who are willing to take the place of the fallen and continue someone else’s war for the right to move cocaine north.