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.

The Colombian Navy's anti-extortion and kidnapping unit patrols the coastal slums.
Photo Credit: James Bargent

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.

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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.”

These gangs of alienated youths and their narco-paymasters have imposed their own brutal social order, in which they are free to sexually abuse girls and women, extort small businesses and even households, recruit children, and beat and kill anyone who challenges their authority.

Residents living under the tyranny of these armed groups and in the midst of their war have two choices: endure or flee. The result has been a displacement crisis, with 5,495 people abandoning their homes in the first weeks of the conflict alone, according to displacement monitoring group CODHES.

“When they dismember someone in the neighborhood, people are listening, and the next day 20 or 30 families flee,” said Andres, who had to leave his home as a result of threats and violence.

According to residents, abandoned houses are often sealed off by the gangs, who refuse to let owners return to collect their belongings. Sometimes the houses, which are often little more than wooden huts built by the residents from recycled materials, are immediately torn down.

Many of the same communities where La Empresa and the Urabeños are fighting are also under threat from the plans for port expansion and other infrastructure projects, which local authorities say will enable Buenaventura to take advantage of projected growth in trade with the United States as a result of the FTA passed in 2011.

Buenaventura is already Colombia’s busiest port, handling over half of Colombia’s foreign trade. However, the riches that pass through have had little impact on the city. Around 90 percent of the municipality’s population is Afro-Colombian, 63 percent of them live in poverty, while unemployment stands at 64 percent. The port itself is the city’s biggest employer, but is renowned for poor pay and labor abuses.

The areas wanted for the port expansion are where this poverty is at its most severe. Now, residents say they not only have to endure economic hardship and armed groups, but are also being subjected to threats and aggression from shadowy figures looking to force them out their homes.

“They have come here intimidating people to get them to leave, forcing them to sell using aggression, or they enter with machinery and knock down the houses the moment people leave,” said Santiago, a member of a community council in one of the areas under threat from the port expansion, who did not want his real name to be published.

The communities also complain of a wave of outsiders appearing with suspect land titles to neighborhoods built on public land by rural refugees, some of which have stood for 50 years.

“Our families that built these neighborhoods and formed the community councils never heard any claims on the land,” said Santiago. “Today, people are appearing claiming the land, people who we, the natives, who grew up here, have never heard of.”

Since the value of the land increased with the port expansion projects, these developers have appeared photographing and measuring the land, and then later reappeared with land titles, according to Santiago.

The case documents from one of the land rights legal battles show claims made on the lands with titles that lack critical details such as the value, legal status and topography of the land at the time of the supposed purchase. The claims were also authorized by a land registry agency that did not even exist at the time of the sale.

In one area, businesses behind the port expansion are not even waiting for the legal disputes to be settled and have begun to seize land by sending in plant machinery, on occasion accompanied by police, to excavate the ground surrounding communities.

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.

“This is my beautiful Buenaventura,” said Liliana. “It is not our land anymore and we have to leave. But where are we supposed to go?”

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia.