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Toxic Mix of Drug Lords, Corruption and Trade Fuels Disorder In Colombian Port City

Business interests are exploiting the fear and displacement generated by the Colombian drug war.

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The city authorities deny the communities are being displaced.

“At no time has it been the intention to evict the people there or make their lives worse—just the opposite,” said Lewis Montaño, the city’s cabinet secretary.

Instead, Montaño said, the mayor’s office was carrying out a coordinated program to relocate the population to a newly built development outside of the city where they can have a “better way of life.”

However, for residents, the relocation represents not only abandoning communities built by themselves and their families, but also their economic lifeblood: fishing.

“If we don’t have access to the sea, we are left with nothing because all our sustenance comes from the sea,” said Andres.

The levels of convergence in the drug war violence and the progression of the port expansion and other infrastructure projects has led communities to question whether the two are connected.

“Every time there is a new mega-project there is an increase in violence in the sector where they want to mount the project,” said Andres. “What happens in these sectors? People disappear, they are murdered, they are buried [in mass graves].”

So far, there have been no investigations and nothing more than rumors of links between armed groups and the politicians pushing the mega-projects. The mayor’s office fiercely denies any ties.

“You could never even insinuate that the administration and the authorities co-exist with criminal groups,” said Montoño. “These are speculations by people with bad intentions, who want to damage Buenaventura and destabilize the administration.”

Montaño’s boss, current mayor Bartolo Valencia, was elected on an anti-mafia ticket in 2011, breaking the stranglehold of a notorious paramilitary linked political caudillo who effectively appointed the city’s mayors: Juan Carlos Martinez.

However, many of the paramilitaries from the bloc that worked with the now incarcerated Martinez went on to join La Empresa and the Urabeños, while Martinez’s political allies still retain a strong presence in the city council and occupy key positions in the administration.

Meanwhile, new mayor Valencia has been publicly accused of involvement in the murder of a political rival who implicated him in a corruption scandal, charges he denies. The communities say not only have they seen the situation get worse under Valencia, but also that he has tried to obscure the reality of their plight as he pushes the image of a free-trade hub with a sparkling future.

“You don’t hear anything about all this from the mayor; for the mayor everything is fine here,” said Andres.

While the city authorities continue to pursue the free trade dream, which so far has seen a balance of trade tipped heavily in favor of the United States on a national level, the Urabeños and La Empresa continue to fight to supply the US cocaine market.

The police now say that the effects of prolonged conflict and the efforts of the security forces are taking their toll on both La Empresa and the Urabeños.

“We have had times in which the Urabeños have weakened, and times in which La Empresa have weakened, but they come back and reestablish themselves. However at this moment I’d say both are weakening,” said Police Chief Colonel Gomez. “They don’t have control, there is weakness and there is no unity.”

The dismembered bodies continue to float in with the tide, and residents continue to report assaults by heavily armed paramilitaries and continue to flee their homes. The flow of drugs has been unaffected, say the coast guard. And the pressure exerted on the communities standing in the way of the FTA mega-projects is only increasing.

 
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