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What's really behind the bombing in Buenaventura

Written by Kelly Nicholls, Gimena Sanchez, Charo Mina Rojas, and Joseph Jordan

Tuesday, 06 April 2010 17:43

A car bomb exploded in Colombia’s port city of Buenaventura last month, killing nine people and leaving 60 others injured. The U.S. plans on utilizing this port as a major point of export and import should the US-Colombia free trade agreement pass in the future. This incident underscores the insecurity faced by civilians – the majority of whom are Afro-descendants - in this area known for drug smuggling and high homicide rates.

The bomb exploded on the morning of March 24 in the heart of the downtown right between the Mayor and the Attorney-General’s offices. While authorities have said they suspect the leftist FARC rebels to be responsible, they have not ruled out the possibility that the bomb was planted by the drug smuggling groups in retaliation for the Attorney-General’s drug investigations

National and local authorities have convinced some in the U.S. Congress that the security problem in the port city is improving, with a noted decrease in homicides. However, in our recent trip to Buenaventura in February as part of the International Pre-Electoral Monitoring Mission, we witnessed that levels of violence had not decreased as such, but rather there were new modalities of violations and crime.

Previously, both the left-wing militia and the right-wing paramilitaries had control of different neighborhoods in the urban center and fought for control of the waterfront communities, which are key real-estate for drug smuggling. However, we heard that in October 2008 the paramilitaries gained control of all of this area. Many local organizations and residents allege that the armed forces openly collaborated with the paramilitary groups to oust the militia.

Subsequently the high levels of homicides caused during the fighting between the two groups have decreased. However, what has replaced this is truly disturbing. Local authorities and organizations report an increase in forced disappearances, where people go missing and are either never found or their remains - generally cut into pieces with chainsaws - are discovered in the waterways by local fisherman.

During a tour of some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Buenaventura, we were told of torture homes, where victims are allegedly cut up with chainsaws, – often while still alive. One young man even reported having witnessed such an atrocity on the street in broad daylight.

Six forced disappearances were reported to the local authorities in January 2010. However, there is a significant sub-registration of this crime due to lack of trust on the part of witnesses and families of the victims in the armed forces and governmental institutions. We were told on numerous occasions that those who reported forced disappearances to the local police or the attorney-general’s office were often targeted by the groups who committed the crime.

The mission also heard of an increase in violent murders of Afro-Colombian women on the part of the illegal armed groups. Local activists refer to these murders as “femicides” as they believe they are an attempt to silence women leaders who are denouncing human rights abuses.

Young people, often Afro-Colombian teenagers, have been particularly affected by the conflict, and are often recruited into the illegally armed groups as young as 9 or 10 to act as informants or to move arms between neighborhoods. Likewise, young girls from 10-years of age are already being forced into prostitution. These young people are easy prey as they live in extreme poverty with little access to education and employment, especially Afro-Colombian kids who suffer from structural racism and marginalization.

Following last week’s car bomb local authorities have asked for an increased militarization of the city. Yet, will this have a real effect on reducing violence and crime when there are innumerous reports of collaboration between the paramilitary groups and the armed forces?

According to locals, paramilitary groups control all aspects of daily life in the urban center, restricting the movements of inhabitants, extorting them, charging “vacunas” or taxes on all aspects of the local economy, imposing curfews in some neighborhoods and committing human rights abuses, such as killings, torture, forced disappearances and rape. During the mission we were told repeatedly that these groups operate very openly in front of the armed forces.

Buenaventura is also a major receptor of internally displaced persons, as well as having a considerable amount of intra-urban displacement. This is likely to be exacerbated with the government’s megaproject to develop a lot of the foreshore of the island into a tourism area, while also amplifying the port in order to increase its capacity to move containers and cargo. Currently, approximately 3,400 families belonging to five neighborhoods are residing in this foreshore area. The port amplification and tourism projects anticipate the displacement of all of these families from this zone, and they have yet to consult these communities about their plans. While they are building some alternative housing, locals are concerned that seeing as the majority of them are fishermen, if they are moved inland they will no longer be able to sustain themselves and their families. Furthermore, if the underlying causes of the conflict are not addressed, moving them will only exacerbate the problem.

Despite the great obstacles to security that Buenaventura faces due to the rampant drug trade, internal armed conflict, weak institutions, corruption and alleged cooperation between the illegally armed actors and the military, it can serve as an opportunity for the US government to do the right thing. Rather than exacerbating the problem by supporting further militarization of the area, the US can help Colombia deal with the underlying causes of violence in this area. The US government should insist that local and national authorities combat impunity in the cases of forced disappearances and homicides, launch an independent investigation into the alleged cooperation between the illegally armed groups and the armed forces, prosecute those who collude with drug networks and properly address the displacement problem. Prior to considering an FTA with Colombia the US would serve its own interests, including its drug policy goals, if it were to address these underlying concerns, protecting the rights of Afro-Colombian residents and ensuring that terrorist acts such as the one that took place last week cease in Buenaventura.

Kelly Nicholls, US Office on Colombia, Gimena Sanchez, Washington Office on Latin America, Charo Mina Rojas, AFRODES USA, Joseph Jordan, NASGACC


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