The Colombian city forgotten by peace

‘Our entire culture suffers from post-traumatic stress.’

Invisible Frontier
The barrier to Anotonio Narino, a neighborhood in Buenaventura. The police do not enter due to insecurity. (Joshua Collins/TNH)

Buenaventura hasn’t had a high school built in 44 years, suffers from an extreme lack of healthcare, and four in five of the mostly Afro-Colombian residents have no regular access to potable water – all despite the fact that 60 percent of Colombia’s international trade flows through the Pacific coast port city.

During much of five decades of civil war, Buenaventura was considered the most dangerous city in Colombia – notorious for particularly gruesome killings as the FARC rebel group, Colombian paramilitaries, and narco-traffickers fought to control the main maritime cocaine-smuggling route.

A landmark 2016 peace deal was supposed to have changed all that, but for many residents of Buenaventura and surrounding areas in the state of Valle de Cauca –cut off geographically from the rest of Colombia by the Andes mountains– the war never ended.

“The peace is two steps forward and one step back,” said Oney Bedoya, an international security consultant and Colombian army veteran. “Our entire culture suffers from post-traumatic stress. It creates an inability to trust, a lack of social cohesion, and damaged people lashing out – generations who grew up in violence.”

And that generational violence is taking its toll.

Since 2015, Médecins Sans Frontières says it has treated 21,000 victims of psychological or sexual trauma in Buenaventura, which locals have dubbed “The Forgotten City”.

“Our entire culture suffers from post-traumatic stress.”

“When we arrived, there was one functioning hospital and one psychiatrist who offered services three days a week,” said Yann Le Boulaire, head MSF coordinator in the region. “This for a city with a population of over 400,000 people.”

He described patients suffering from extreme psychological trauma resulting from prolonged exposure to violence – many also hampered by stigma as people in the region often associate seeking help for mental problems with weakness.

“But we’re making progress,” Le Boulaire said. “Twenty-one thousand people out on the street telling the community that the trauma isn’t their fault is the best awareness programme we could have.”

‘Invisible frontiers’

According to an August 2019 study by the International Crisis Group, 45 percent of cocaine exports leave Colombia through the Pacific coast. Decades of government neglect and increasing lawlessness have allowed dissident groups to put down long roots and flourish in Buenaventura.

“Things got much worse here in the late 90s,” explained Darwin Molina, a local activist who tries to help local citizens from poor neighbourhoods get elected to political office. “The US ‘War on Drugs’ and the escalation of hostilities under (former Colombian president) Uribe brought FARC out of the jungles and into the city.”

Molina described a four-way war over the lucrative cocaine trade that transits the city as leftists from FARC battled right-wing Colombian paramilitaries, narco-gangs from the state capital of Cali, and US-backed Colombian state forces.

“We have lost a generation – either to crime or displacement.”

In 2001, even amid the escalating violence, the Colombian government decided to privatise and modernise the formerly public port. As the flow of goods increased, so did the fighting to control territory that became more valuable by the day.

“All the national companies left because of the violence. And any youth that wants a better education? Well, they left too.” Molina said. “We have lost a generation – either to crime or displacement.”

A study by the Norwegian Refugee Council found that in 2013 and 2014, before the end of hostilities, 13,000 people were displaced yearly from Buenaventura alone.

People in Buenaventura speak of the “invisible frontiers” of the city – sections such as Antonio Nariño and La Planta, that police cannot enter. Violence is commonplace in these lawless zones and residents keep silent due to fear of the criminal groups that have carved out private fiefdoms in the city.

Molina took The New Humanitarian on a tour of his neighbourhood, adjacent to two such conflict zones. He pointed out the crime scenes of 11 murders that had occurred over just the last three months.

“A few weeks ago an 11-year-old child was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight. After being shot, he tried to run home to that doorway,” said Molina, gesturing towards a nearby building. “He died before his parents realised he had even left the house.”

State authorities reported 703 murders in the Valle de Cauca region during the first four months of 2019, an increase of 75 percent over 2018. For comparison, New York, a city with nearly 20 times the population, reported 80 murders during the same period. Molina and several aid workers who spoke to TNH insisted the actual rate in Buenaventura is far higher, with many murders going unreported due to fear of reprisals.

Buenaventura police say the small neighbourhood gangs are employed by narco-traffickers to destabilise the city through terror and keep the authorities away, leaving them free to run their cocaine empires from the port and surrounding areas.

“We don’t deal with wounds,” said Le Boulaire. “There are no wounded here, except psychologically. We deal with deaths.”

“Much of the violence is invisible, that is to say it is never reported to the police,” he continued. “We deal primarily with people suffering from psychological trauma. Eighty percent of the people who come to us for help have been eye-witnesses to a homicide.”

One aid worker, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons, spends days trying to track down, collect, and identify the bodies of people who have disappeared.

“The truth is that no one knows how much of the violence goes unreported. Government studies are only a guess,” he said.

He works in regions controlled by dissident groups, often interviewing the very same criminals responsible for the violence in an effort to find the remains for loved-ones who have been without answers for months or years.

Worse to come?

In 2016, a popular vote on a peace accord between the Colombian government and FARC failed by a razor-thin margin. Then-president Juan Manuel Santos pushed the controversial accord through anyway, officially ending the longest-running conflict in the Americas.

But the nation remains deeply polarised over its implementation, and recent events have placed the deal even further in jeopardy.

President Ivan Duque, who won the 2018 election after promising to dismantle and renegotiate aspects of the accord, has used parliamentary strategies to slow down and challenge its roll-out. He cites the criminal activities of FARC dissidents, who have refused to lay down arms, and calls for FARC leaders to be charged with war crimes – leaders who were granted immunity under Santos in return for joining the government.

On 29 August, three ex-FARC leaders proclaimed a return to arms and vowed to return to the jungles on the Venezuelan border to wage war once again.

Under the 2016 peace accord, the government promised to develop former rebel-controlled areas, but the process has been slow and political corruption on all levels has led to much of the money being squandered or used inefficiently.

And in the vacuum left by the FARC, a plethora of other dissident groups has risen up to battle over a region now largely ignored by the government.

“The government isn’t living up to its promises,” said Father Jon Reina, one of the leaders of strikes that shut down the city in 2017 over frustration with a lack of infrastructure and investment. “Our problems are threefold: corruption; the drug trade; and an utter lack of economic opportunity for those who live here. This creates a cycle of violence that can only be addressed at the federal level.”

Some here worry that the recent FARC fracture could worsen the situation in Valle de Cauca even if it doesn’t signal an official return to war.

“When a youth with no education is given the opportunity to work for the narcos, he can earn more in a few weeks than he would otherwise earn in a two years working a minimum wage job,” said Molina.

He worries that as the new FARC dissidents look for allies and foot-soldiers in their renewed war, this region is likely to be fertile ground for their recruiting efforts.

“If the government doesn’t cultivate the peace, they will reap war,” Molina said. “Whether that war is officially acknowledged or not.”

(TOP PHOTO: The barrier to Antonio Nariño, a neighbourhood in Buenaventura that police don't enter due to insecurity.)

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