The deep beating drone of a Bell 212 Navy transport helicopter boomed overhead as it circled low over the port, its fifty-caliber machine gun slung out the door as a soldier scans the city below. Humvee troop carrier vehicles cruise in convoy through the city center, soldiers resting against the roof-mounted turrets as they search the bustling streets for an urbanized enemy.
As if stepping into a surreally-calm warzone, the drug war in Colombia’s most economically important port city, Buenaventura, is subtle and insidious. A war which everyday involves the military, the navy, gangs, journalists, and innocent civilians. The crisis began in 1998 when the successors of right wing paramilitary “death squads” arrived and amalgamated with many of the city’s urban gangs to control the narcotics, gold, sex and arms trades that flow through the port.
In the past two years, 20,000 people have been driven from their homes fleeing the violence induced by criminal groups such as La Empresa and El Clan Usaga, generally referred to as BACRIM (Bandas Criminales). These groups have caused hundreds of forces disappearances.
In March 2014, the city sparked international outrage after the discovery of a number of ‘Casas de Pique’ or ‘Chop-up Houses’ used by gangs to cut up victims while they were still alive before dumping their bodily parts in deep water or burying them in clandestine graves.
In September 2014, eight journalists from Buenaventura and Cali were given death threats for reporting on the gang- induced atrocities of the city. Since 1980, six local journalists have already been murdered for reporting on these hideous crimes. “There are people here who control with fear” states Adriana Minota, a local investigative journalist. “We don’t want to lose our humanity by not reporting on what happens in Buenaventura, but we censor ourselves because people are getting killed.”
In February 2014, 20,000 residents took to the streets of Buenaventura in an act of organized desperation. The mass of humanity shut down the city and sent a powerful message to BACRIM and the Colombian Government that the crisis was reaching a tipping point.
The following month, President Juan Manual Santos deployed 2400 Military and Navy personnel throughout the city to regain control of some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods. Police resources were bolstered, doubling the number of jurisdiction zones in order to control each with more intensity. Working together, these security forces captured more than 300 gang members who were later convicted of homicides.
I arrived in La Playita, a barrio on the coastal edge of this island city and a district which has borne the brunt of some of the worst violence during this past decade as many of the neighbourhoods were carved up among the BACRIM. Locals have been abducted, shot and dismembered for crossing invisible territorial lines in barrios such as La Playita.
I enter a gated community guarded by military personnel with M16 assault rifles slung across their chests. A large banner swaying above the gate proclaimes this a ‘Zona Humanitaria’ (Humanitarian Zone).
Orlando Castillo is a young community leader and co-founded the ‘Zone’ with his father, Pompilio, and sister, Isabella. Children are running wild playing and riding bikes while an older generation sits in the shade playing cards. “Before we built the Zona, the area was covered in litter. We removed the paramilitaries and banned all weapons inside,” states Pompillo. “Since then, there have been no murders, no dismemberments, no disappearances and no guns”, he continues proudly. “We search for life, peace and survival, to experience a new life here again,” elaborates Orlando. “We did not cause this. But we are the consequence. We do not want to continue crying for our children who have disappeared.”
I notice a nicely-refurbished typical small wooden shack by the waterfront where three young girls play at the door. Orlando turns to me. “That house is a former Chop-up House that the police found.”
The ‘Humanitarian Zone’ now consists of some 300 families totaling more than a thousand souls. As the zone grows, more and more streets are incorporated. We walk through a tidal area where shacks built on stilt legs are connected by wooden planks. This district has water access, electricity, television reception and even WiFi in certain parts. It represents a successful social project implemented by the local residents with the help from the Navy and international NGOs. A grassroots action that is rebuilding lives in an environment plagued by violence and poverty.
However, the Colombian government is planning to develop the Buenaventura waterfront with a modernized broadwalk – malecón – in order to raise the city’s touristic potential. It involves constructing a three kilometer-long tidal zone walkway complete with restaurants, bars and recreation facilities.
The government also plans to build over the top of those existing communities within the low-tide Bajamar district and residents will be forcibly removed to an inland relocation area, known as San Antonio.“I am not afraid to speak my mind on this,” states Orlando. “This is a social invasion.”
The 90 percent Afro-Colombian community of Buenaventura know this all too well and has lived forced relocation before, especially in regions of high resource or geostrategic value, whether it be for coca cultivation or mega industrial projects.
Since the militarization began a year ago in Buenaventura, change has begun in terms of securing the most dangerous city in Colombia. However, there remains a detrimental lack of social development and which is needed to rout out the root causes of poverty and endemic violence. “Improvements in education and more work opportunities will be needed to mitigate theses problems,” states Coronel Marcelo Russi.
Consulting with local communities on what 4th Generation projects could benefit both trade and commerce in Buenaventura, as well as protecting people’s rightful home territories are means by which the state could stem the tide of violence, and end one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent Colombian history.