The city home to Colombia’s largest port, Buenaventura, has come to a standstill in recent days over frustration by locals with growing insecurity and gang-related violence. On Wednesday shopkeepers joined the popular protest by shuttering-up their stores, and marching through the streets with the tricolor Colombian flag.
The protest known as the ‘Plantón por el bienestar de Buenaventura’ (Walk-out for the welfare of Buenaventura) has consolidated groups from all walks of life, including representatives of local businesses, fisheries, and church organizations.
Buenaventura has been at the center of a turf war between armed groups fighting for control of a drug trade as well as, local gangs, which finance their criminal activity by offering protection to shop keepers in exchange for extortion money. Some 6,000 businesses tired of being held ransom by the rampant violence began closing their doors this week. So far, the mass protest has been peaceful.
In order to quell tensions at this strategic Pacific port and vital hub for trans-oceanic commerce, President Juan Manuel Santos put an additional 300 police and 400 marines on the ground. Santos stated emphatically during a meeting with the governing council and Bishop Héctor Epalza Quintero, that it was time for the inhabitants of Buenaventura “to conquer fear.”
Buenaventura has been beset by violence given its port status and key route for the shipping of narcotics from south central Colombia as well as, its vulnerability as one of the country’s poorest cities, with 300,000 inhabitants of mostly African-Colombian descent. The country’s oldest guerrilla force, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), also fueled the cocktail of violence and poverty by entering into a territorial dispute in the mid 2000s when para-military groups began terrorizing rural communities and “clearing out” shanties where left-wing rebels were suspected of having a foothold. According to Margaret Boehme of Witness for Peace Colombia, Buenaventura remains a “ground zero for forced displacement.” In 2013, there were 144 reported murders in the port city. In what has transpired so far this year, the National Forensics Department has received 55 cases.
Many extra-judicial killings, however, are rarely denounced by those living in poor communities where fear and intimidation are commonplace. While the murder rate climbs, displacement of peoples remains alarmingly high. According to Witness for Peace, in November 2013 “fighting between different armed groups displaced 2,500 families in Buenaventura.”
Just one month after President Santos met with the leaders of the newly-created Pacific Alliance, a trading bloc formed by Chile, Mexico, Colombia and Peru, the port of Buenaventura has all but ground to a halt, affecting the flow of goods from the coast to the cities in the interior. As locals demand enhanced security and guarantees from the national government, President Santos must not only ease their frustrations, but look to stem a tide of violence which may threaten one of the very pillars of his foreign policy agenda: expanding free trade agreements with Pacific Rim nations.
But for many who are taking to the streets in Buenaventura, Santos’ Realpolitik is but a distraction of centralized politics. As the popular strike continues shutting down small and large businesses, a future of peace and prosperity remains but a distant aspiration.