BOGOTÁ, Colombia - An arm washed up on the shore of Colombia’s port city, Buenaventura, in mid-January. It probably belonged to one of three fishermen, according to local reports, who were moving between different towns on the coast when they were picked up, dismembered and thrown back into the sea.
The arm had a tattoo on it, connecting it to one of the missing men, Armando Valencia.
Residents of Buenaventura said this is a tragically familiar occurrence. “There were some reports of body parts washing up La Bocana [a nearby tourist spot]. A head, a leg, an arm,” said María Miyela Riascos, a social leader from Buenaventura. “Also, they found a man and a woman dismembered in the rural area of Bajo Calima.”
The new year has wrought a new wave of violence here - these sorts of stories are part of daily life in the majority Afro-Colombian city. Three people have been killed or disappeared daily, and conflict between organized crime has displaced as many as 6,000 people. Videos on Twitter show people fleeing their homes and young men and women patrolling with assault weapons. #SOSbuenaventura has been trending.
Buenaventura is a city of paradoxes. While more than half of the country’s international trade enters and leaves this port, many of the roughly 400,000 residents live in poverty with precarious access to water and an unemployment rate of around thirty percent. While the port has expanded after multiple free trade agreements, the local population has suffered endemic violence for generations as guerilla and paramilitary groups have disputed control of this city, whose location on the specific coast make it strategic for both legal commerce and drug trafficking.
“There was violence like this in 1998-2002, then again in 2008, again in 2014, and now in 2021. That doesn’t mean in the other years there wasn’t violence, but these are the peak years,” Riascos said.
Particularly horrific are the “chop houses,” the name given by locals to places that paramilitary groups take victims to dismember them in an effort to cover their tracks. Riascos said that chop houses have always existed in Buenaventura, but their prevalence tends to increase and decrease over time.
What is new, she says, are the constant firefights in the streets.
“I’ve been doing journalism in Buenaventura for 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Henry Ramirez, a local journalist, referring to 33 firefights in 33 days. “There was always one, every two or maybe five days max. But now we are going on two months with daily assassinations and enforced disappearances.”
The violence exploded on December 30th when at least seven youths were killed on one night across the city. “Community versions have argued that the exacerbation of violence implies the possibility that this figure could be much higher, due to the fact that several bodies have been thrown into marshes, places where the climate and local conditions ensure the rapid disappearance of their remains,” said a report from the National Ombudsman’s office (a government human rights watchdog).
The report also said that 170,000 people are at risk of violence, displacement, recruitment into criminal groups, and abductions. The UN has also expressed concern about the surge in violence, which is rooted in disputes between factions of the criminal group La Local, called the Los Shotas and Los Espartanos, dedicated to drug trafficking and extortion.
In spite of the national government's response to further militarize the city, Riascos said that people living in Buenaventura have little confidence in the police or the army. When on one street there are firefights between gangs happening, police are just a few blocks away. Collusion between paramilitary groups and Colombia’s armed forces has a long history, and the subcommander of police was arrested in 2019 for collaborating with paramilitary groups.
Paramilitary groups threatened Riascos, she told VICE World News, she thinks for being part of a strike committee that forces economic elites to invest in services like drinking water and healthcare and not just port expansion. Social leaders such as Riascos formed the Civil Strike Committee during a 2017 general strike, a body that continues to advocate for improving social conditions in Buenaventura. This brings them into conflict with political and economic interests on how the port is used. Civil Strike Committee leader Temístocles Machado was assassinated in 2018.
"I want the world to know that they are pursuing us and they killed our friend and fellow leader for asking for water, for asking for education. We're not asking for anything more than basic dignity," said Riascos.