Buenaventura: a Colombian city under siege wonders if troops can bring lasting peace

The armored Humvee with the roof-mounted M-4 rifle rumbled down a narrow alley as camouflaged troops in flak jackets poked their heads around corners and peered beneath shacks balancing precariously on stilts.

For more than two weeks, this gritty port city has been under siege. More than 780 police and troop reinforcements, with 10 combat vehicles and patrol boats, have rushed into Buenaventura to fight a crime wave that has rattled even those who thought they were inured to the city’s cyclical bloodshed.

On the surface, the show of force seems to be working. After seeing more than 87 murders and eight forced disappearances this year, there hasn’t been a reported homicide in 20 days, authorities say. But some worry the soldiers are simply masking deeper problems and that once they leave — as they will inevitably have to — the murders, dismemberments and mayhem will resume.

“Things are calmer now because the bandits have gone into hiding,” said Jairo Caycedo, a 56-year-old plumber who lives in San José, a bayside slum that’s surrounded by water during high tide. “But there are nights when we’ve been shot at from every single direction.”

Aura Gonzalez, 64, also a San José resident, said a head washed up beneath a neighbors’ shack about a month ago. The only reason it was notable, she said, was because the tide usually carries body parts to the other side of the shore.

Buenaventura should be a symbol of the “new Colombia” that has become a hotbed for tourists and foreign investors. Along with Chile, Peru and Mexico, Colombia is part of the Pacific Alliance trade bloc and Buenaventura is Colombia’s premier Pacific port, handling about 60 percent of all imports and exports. Its geostrategic location makes it a natural layover for freighters traveling through the Panama Canal.

But its privileged geography has a dark side. It’s also thoroughfare for the drug trade and at least two gangs, the Urabeños and La Empresa, have been in a brutal turf war for the routes.

Their bloody tactics have generated headlines that sound like fiction. When locals began reporting screams from “chop houses,” where people were being dismembered alive, it fueled protests, international scrutiny and a rushed reaction by the national government.

Gang territory

Police Col. Jose Miguel Correa claims the spike in violence is a sign the government is doing its job. He said that as the gangs are getting squeezed defections are on the rise.

“The deaths have largely been within the criminal gangs themselves fighting for control,” he said. “The dismemberment are being used to sow terror and panic — to keep their members from working for the other side.”

But civilians are caught in the crossfire. Locals warn of “invisible borders” that divide gang territory. Crossing them, even temporarily, can spark deadly reprisals.

The government’s Defensoría del Pueblo, or Ombudsmen’s Office, reported that children were not registering at the La Gabriela school because it was on the wrong side of an invisible border. Although the school is directly in front of the fire department in the center of Buenaventura, “not even parents can get close to the educational institution for fear of being killed,” the office found.

The U.S.-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch recently released a report about the crisis. Jose Miguel Vivanco, the organization’s executive director for the Americas division, said the brutality of the crimes can only be compared to the chainsaw murders carried out by Colombian paramilitary groups in the 1980s and 1990s. The similarities might not be a coincidence: researchers and government organizations say today’s warring gangs are the direct successors of the paramilitaries — who partially demobilized in 2004 — and have adopted their regional command structure, tactics and even soldiers.

“Buenaventura’s barbarity and cruelty is unique,” Vivanco said. “Today in the Western Hemisphere, you don’t see something like this.”

Fueling the phenomenon has been a weak government presence and rampant impunity, the study found. The Attorney General’s Office has more than 840 open investigations into alleged disappearances over the past 20 years, but as of January, none had led to a conviction. For the past three years, Buenaventura has also led the nation in forced displacements. Some 13,468 people fled their homes last year to escape the violence but, again, none of those cases had led to a conviction as of January, the study found.

Mayor Bartolo Valencia Ramos’ eighth-floor office provides a stark view of the city’s dual nature. To the north is a new five-star hotel and the sprawling port complex that never goes dark even when the city loses power. Just beneath the mayor’s window and stretching south are the sprawling stilt slums, or palafitos. More than 80 percent of Buenaventura’s 370,000 residents live in crushing poverty and in 2011 the city’s unemployment rate was almost four times the national average. Valencia said that while that disparity remains, the violence will continue.

But others accuse City Hall of deadly mismanagement and turning a blind eye to the violence — much of it concentrated in slums the city is trying to demolish to make way for a sweeping esplanade. For example, while the central government has paid for Buenaventura’s water system several times over, service remains spotty at best.

“The money that comes to Buenaventura is not being used well and there’s deep administrative corruption — we don’t have any social policies,” said Mario Angulo with Proceso de Comunidades Negras, an organization that works with the city’s Afro-Colombians, which represent 84 percent of the population. “The solution is not to capture all the kids and put them in jail because the problems will remain.”

Inherited problems

The mayor blames the corruption on past administrations and says he’s working with his hands tied.

“Of course, every bad thing that happens in Buenaventura logically falls in the mayor’s lap,” he said. “But we’ve been abandoned by the state for the last 50 years.”

Indeed, the country’s Pacific coast seems worlds apart from the rest of the country. During a meeting of the presidents of the Pacific Alliance earlier this year, Colombia couldn’t find a single suitable site on the namesake coast to host the meeting. Instead, they met in the Atlantic port of Cartagena.

President Juan Manuel Santos has vowed to change that. When he militarized Buenaventura this month, he also said the administration is seeking a $400 million loan from the World Bank and Andean Finance Corporation to overhaul Buenaventura and other Pacific communities.

He said investors wanted to put their money in the city but needed “the right conditions.”

Now “Buenaventura is a focal point for poverty, backwardness and insecurity,” Santos said during a recent speech.

To some, the promises sound like election-year grandstanding. In 2006, when Buenaventura was the country’s most murderous city, the government also promised to make changes, locals say.

“We have a lot of fear,” Angulo said, “that the promises will remain just that.”