Surge in gang violence threatens fragile peace in Colombia’s Buenaventura

A member of the Colombian Army patrols the neighborhoods of Buenaventura. Photo: Ejercito Nacional

A surge in gang violence has shattered a fragile truce between Buenaventura’s most powerful gangs, plunging Colombia’s largest port city into a state of dire insecurity. A video circulating on social media allegedly shows masked members of an illegal armed group patrolling impoverished neighborhoods, instilling fear and intimidation among local residents.

In response to the menacing video, and growing fear among local authorities, President Gustavo Petro’s national government will boost a security presence in Buenaventura. Defense Minister Iván Velásquez announced that additional military and police forces would be deployed to enhance urban control capabilities, although specific figures regarding the security reinforcement were not disclosed. This decision came after a security council meeting at the presidential palace in Bogotá.

Buenaventura moves up to 40% of the country’s international trade, and also serves as a strategic drug trafficking route to Central America and Mexico. The ongoing territorial control over lucrative drug routes between the Shottas and Espartanos gangs has terrorized a city home to 340,000 inhabitants, mostly Afro-Colombians.

The Petro government has attempted to mediate between the Shottas and Espartanos gangs to quell the violence in the port city. In 2022, the gangs signed a truce with the support of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, which expressed solidarity with their decision. Plans have been announced from Peace Commissioner Danilo Rueda to resume talks with representatives from local organizations, including the Catholic Church, within the next two weeks.

Adding to the existing conflict between the Shottas and Espartanos, the video appears to feature gang members of an armed group named “Los Roberts”. These hooded members, with long-range weapons, claim to control several neighborhoods, and raise concerns about the presence of a potential dissident faction from existing gangs.

Buenaventura Mayor Víctor Hugo Vidal has taken a cautious stance amid the escalating humanitarian crisis in the port city. However, after the video allegedly shows “Los Roberts” making threats against leaders of the criminal gang “Los Jalisco,” Mayor Vidal criticized Cali’s Mayor Jorge Iván Ospina, blaming the deteriorating security situation on the impact it has on Cali. Mayor Vidal drew parallels between the ongoing violence in Buenaventura and the drug cartels that established a stronghold in Cali during the 1980s and 1990s.

In a direct appeal for assistance, Governor Clara Luz Roldán of Valle del Cauca has requested the national government militarize the department in response to the violence and complex security situation for one of Colombia’s most important agricultural and industrial regions.