The name of the city of Buenaventura means ‘good fortune’. It’s a name with much potential for a city with much potential. 67% of Colombia’s trade passes through the port. 12 million tons of goods, both legal and illegal, are exported and imported through Buenaventura; it’s the gateway to the Orient; to Japan, the Philippines and, of course, China.
However, it’s been a long neglected city by the government; it is cut off from the rest of the country by the Andees and has been left to its own devices in many ways. Ten years ago, the internal conflict between the FARC terrorist group and the state forces was at its height here, the FARC were cleansed from the city by the paramilitary forces that were recruited to deal with the terrorist threats although they still operate in the rural areas. But the situation with the paramilitary forces got out of control so the government initiated a de-mobilisation of the paramilitary, and ‘officially’ the paramilitaries no longer exist here. However, many of them are still active and are classed as ‘bacrim’ or “bandas criminals” (criminal gangs). That’s how those in authority want them to be thought of – gangs of lawless criminals who are committing atrocious crimes because of gang warfare and control of their ‘turf’.
However, behind the violence there is another story emerging, as has been the case all over Colombia. Wherever there is violence there are always economic and political interests in the land.
Over recent years, there has been much more interest in the port of Buenaventura, particularly from external investors and international companies, but also by interested Colombian stakeholders such as the government, big exporters and drug dealers. It is in the interests of all these parties to expand the Port and modernise Buenaventura in order to attract investors, business and tourism.
So, plans are afoot to raise the profile of the city, to expand the Port and to build a boardwalk. The boardwalk is planned for the whole of the seafront of ‘la isla’ (the part of Buenaventura that is connected to the mainland by just one road). However, all along that seafront are the wooden houses built on land reclaimed from the sea. The houses (built on stilts) are home to thousands of Afro-Colombians, most of whom earn their living from the sea. There have been overt and covert attempts to remove them from this prime piece of land. Some have been offered rehousing, but for a family that rely on fishing for their livelihood, a concrete block 9 miles from the sea, is not an upgrade!
Those who those who have led the resistance against displacement live with constant threats against them. The neighbourhoods are scenes of brutal violence with the famous ‘chopping houses’ where people are taken to be dismembered alive and their body parts thrown into the sea. The residents live in constant fear with daily occurrences of disappearances, extortion and murder, all intended to intimidate them into leaving. These atrocities are being committed by the ‘bacrim’, but the local people know that this is just a byword for the paramilitary who are ‘incentivised’ by those who hold the money and the power.
I am coming to the end of my time here in Buenaventura and I have come to realise that it is a city of good fortunes, but only for the rich and powerful!!
The one glimmer of hope is the Humanitarian Space in the neighbourhood of La Playita, which is right on this much sought-after seafront; it is a haven of peace within a city of carnage. Everyone who I have spoken to says the same thing “We didn’t sleep at night through fear, but now we sleep secure”. This little street is now known as the safest place in Buenaventura. Thanks to the work of the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace, and the bravery of the residents of Puente Nayero, a precedent for peaceful resistance has been set.