Toxic Mix of Drug Lords, Corruption and Trade Fuels Disorder In Colombian Port City
The Colombian Navy's anti-extortion and kidnapping unit patrols the coastal slums.
Photo Credit: James Bargent
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The Colombian port of Buenaventura is being ravaged by a paramilitary drug war and a push to capitalize on free trade, which together feed off the bloodshed and poverty that has become the daily lot for the city’s inhabitants.
Located in the south of Colombia’s Pacific coast, Buenaventura is the beating heart of the country’s foreign trade, connecting Colombia to 300 ports around the world.
Over the last 18 months, it has been wracked by barbaric violence directed by narco-paramilitary organizations fighting for control of the city. Mutilated bodies without limbs or heads are found floating in the bay, gun battles are a regular occurrence and mass graves holding the remains of the disappeared have proliferated, according to residents.
The frontlines of this war are the city’s coastal slums, which offer strategic access to the sea for drugs and arms trafficking. These same slums are also territories coveted by the authorities, who plan to demolish them to make way for a series of infrastructure “mega-projects” designed to capitalize on the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
According to residents, the fear, lawlessness and displacement generated by the drug war is now being taken advantage of by business interests, which are trying to seize land in the disputed territories through a combination of corruption and intimidation.
The first shots in the narco-paramilitary war for Buenaventura were fired at a local gangster known as Ramiro in October 2012. Since then, the conflict has claimed hundreds of lives, displaced thousands and sewn terror throughout the city.
“We have become 'military objectives,' said Liliana, a leader of a local women’s organization, who did not want her real name to be used for security reasons. “The only rights we have are to bury our dead, stay silent and hope they don’t kill us.”
The city is divided into territories controlled by the warring rivals. Those who cross the “invisible borders” that mark out gang turf are viewed as enemies by the armed groups and are often never seen again.
“It is imprisonment, people can’t even leave to buy food, or to sell their products in town,” said Andres, an Afro-Colombian leader who also did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.
On one side of the lines is La Empresa (the Business), a mafia organization headed by corrupt local businessmen. Until recently, La Empresa ruled the city by combining the power and wealth of the international drug trafficking army the Rastrojos and the muscle of local demobilized members of the right-wing paramilitary organization, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
On the other side of the lines stand another descendent of the AUC and Colombia’s most powerful criminal group—the Urabeños.
Both sides are fighting for control of one of Colombia’s primary drug trafficking corridors. According to the coast guard, every year an estimated 250 tons of cocaine is loaded onto speedboats in the labyrinth of mangrove waterways that surrounds Buenaventura, then dispatched to waiting Mexican cartels, which move it on to the United States.
After announcing the start of their campaign for control of this lucrative route with the assassination of Ramiro, the Urabeños launched an assault that left 33 people dead in the first month.
The small cell of invading Urabeños quickly grew into a considerable illegal army as they recruited from among the city’s thousands of impoverished and disenfranchised youths, who make cheap and disposable soldiers.
“[The armed groups] take advantage of the social situation, because people here lack so much—education, healthcare, employment, birth control,” said Buenaventura police chief Colonel Oscar Gomez. “So it is seen as a good thing, to get a gun and to be above the ordinary people.”