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'Chopping Houses,' Fears of Witchcraft Leave Trail of Dismembered Bodies in Buenaventura

While the chopped up bodies mount in Buenaventura amid a gang war and word of Santeria-like rituals, local officials want to redevelop the most vulnerable coastal communities in Colombia's crucial Pacific port.
Photo by Carlos Villalón

The two fingers were found along the main road that borders the Camilo Torres barrio, in the Valley of Cauca, port of Buenaventura, in southwest Colombia. At least, that's what the girl told the police.

She said she picked up the fingers one by one, put them in a plastic bag she had inside her purse, and then she thought — accurately: These are my brother's fingers.

Luis Fernando Otero was a 17-year-old car washer. Around the time of his sister's discovery, rumors began circulating among the more than 390,000 inhabitants of Buenaventura, the most important port in the Colombian Pacific, that Luis Fernando had fled several weeks before because he was being chased by a gang.


Locals also said that he had returned to the port town two weeks before, but no one could say why. What they did say is that he smoked weed in the street, and that he was involved in something shady. Some said he had been charging people extortions, without the permission of the Usagá clan, one of the gangs battling for control of Buenaventura's barrios. That is why he was killed, they said.

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The young man had been missing for several days when VICE News arrived in Buenaventura in early June.

By then, Colombia's army and police, acting on orders from President Juan Manuel Santos, had increased their ground force by 30 percent in Buenaventura, and had spent three months trying to stop the gang violence that had been spiralling out of control for the past year-and-a-half, turning the city into the most dangerous in Colombia.

Violence in Buenaventura had an added touch of the macabre.

According to the local police, between 2013 and 2014, at least 25 people had been meticulously and carefully dismembered as a result of the gang warfare. Body parts were then strewn about the city, in alleyways, public plazas, parks, and in the maze of streets that face the Pacific. All of this occurred in plain-view of local fishermen, and those collecting mussels in the coastal mangroves, but mostly out of the rest of the nation's view.


Body parts were then strewn about the city, in alleyways, public plazas, parks, and in the maze of streets that face the Pacific.

The war reached its boiling point this year in part due to constant extortion affecting port vendors and merchants. With the residents at their wit's end, Buenaventura's bishop, Monsignor Héctor Espalza, organized a massive march in February to protest the violence. Soon after, the matter became a national concern.

Among the residents, the verb picar — used in place of dismember — is now common. It became the daily topic for local news outlets right in the middle of the president's reelection campaign. The daily news hardy spoke of anything else, besides the casas de pique, or "chopping houses" — apparent safe-houses throughout the city, where victims were assassinated and systematically dismembered.

Luis Fernando would be victim 26.

The day we arrived in Buenaventura, a white bag with human remains had been discovered in Gamboa, an area located along the outskirts of the port. We could barely make out the Pacific ocean from a distance, the city's 12 communes, and the cranes at the city's two main port terminals, which move approximately 15 million tons of cargo a year.

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The midday sun beat down on Gamboa. Colombian forensics investigators had been working since the early morning to recover the remains. The dismembered body, the red-and-black T-shirt with a number on the back, the ID card found in a bag buried along the train tracks in a distant barrio, all pointed to Luis Fernando Otero.


Everyone knew it was him, including his mother, Luz Marina Ibarguen, a dark-skinned woman with kind features and an impassable stare, who did not visit the exhumation site. A few neighborhoods over, in the unfurnished living room of a modest brick home, Luz Marina held a wake for her son.

Each barrio in Buenaventura and each block belongs to one gang or another. Crossing the invisible lines that separate one gang's turf from another's is the equivalent of signing a death wish. That's why neither Luz Marina, nor her daughter, nor the victim's godmother — a severe and somewhat bitter, wart-covered woman — ventured out to witness the body's recovery.

At home, they mounted an altar, surrounding it with candles. A pink plastic rosary hung from a black bow that had been suspended from a white sheet, that now hung carefully from a wall. On the floor, a candle was lit next to a full glass of water. For the dead soul to quench its thirst.

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In Buenaventura, 89 percent of the population identifies as either black or mulatto, according to figures from the public ombudsman's office. African culture can be perceived everywhere — in love (men customarily don't leave behind a used condom at a lover's home, to avoid being cursed with his own semen), and in death. Indeed, authorities believe the wave of dismemberments is a result of the criminals' belief in Santeria-like death rituals.


José Miguel Correa, commander of the local police force since November 2013, said there is a syncretic backstory to the dismemberments. Correa's office, located on the topmost floor of the police force's central command, is adorned with multiple images of the Virgin Mary, Pope Francis, and his predecessor, Pope Benedict.

"When someone is murdered on the Pacific, family members tie the victim's thumbs together, and tie both feet together, before burying them," Correa explained, on the same day that the exhumation of the corpse in Gamboa began. "With this they hope that the dead's soul will return to the world and drain" — seque, he said — "whoever killed them."

The police have also found necklaces related to Santeria at the scenes. Correa believes the dicing of victims, perhaps, is meant to prevent the dead from returning to avenge their murders.

"That's why they are dismembered," Colonel Correa said, adding that the fight against the gangs is also a fight against what he called witchcraft. "In fact, if all of the parts are put together in a bag, the brujería stops having an effect."

"Buenaventura," he said, "has the most powerful brujas on the Pacific. They use herbs, candles, prayers… We have tried to diminish that."

"They followed her in a boat. They got her with a clean machete hit, in the water, and then they tied a rock to her neck so she would sink. … That's the day we said, 'We can't go on like this.'"


The housing phenomenon here would likely baffle any urban planner. Thousands of people live in stilted homes above the sea. This refugee community has migrated to the coast, fleeing the war being waged in the jungle.

Residents have patiently toiled to transform the bridges into building blocks or drawers to be filled with sawdust, shells, trash, and sand, to create blocks of man-made land — blocks of land that challenge the nature of the western Colombian coastline.

Using this tedious and precarious method, this barrio has managed, over the course of a single generation, to build a football field on the sea, and force the water to recede. The people of Buenaventura call this land bajamar — or, the low coast.

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There have been many wars waged in Buenaventura: the cartel's arrival in Cali in the early 90s, the introduction of the FARC toward the end of the same decade, the paramilitary takeover at the turn of the century — which was led by the AUC, or Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia — the FARC's exit, the demobilization of the self-defense armies, and finally the revival of some of the port's criminal old guard.

Among them, a gang emerged called La Empresa, which in 2005 reactivated its brief reign over the port town.

In 2012, however, a new cartel from the Urabá region in the Caribbean coastline — the bloodiest and most ambitious seat of narco-paramilitarism — looked for new opportunities to export through the Pacific, and decided to set up shop in the Buenaventura port.


This cartel had an unambiguous structure, but came with several names. The press referred to them as Los Urabeños, the government called them the Usagá clan, and the majority of the city's residents referred to them as the Chocoanitos.

The Usagá clan was just another cartel, looking to expand its influence and exit routes in the port. The war had begun.

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They began to squeeze out the local gang with threats and promises of increased salaries to deserters. Once the new contracts were in place, and the hiring was sorted out, a territorial dispute began over the sea blocks down in bajamar.

The war raged on for over a year, and silence reigned in the coastal region, until the people who began to fall were no longer just the local hitmen and hoodlums, but also the street vendors, taxi drivers, fishermen, and other community figures.

One day, the kids simply stopped playing soccer, and began to play a new game: the "chopping game."

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Local community leader Nora Isabel Castillo cares for the affairs of just one street, San Francisco street, in a barrio called Playita, in the coveted nerve-center of the Buenaventura port. This area used to be known as Puente de los Nayeros.

Since April 2014, some 280 families have been trying to become the first urban "humanitarian zone" in Colombia, a model that used to be operate in rural areas of the country, when civilians would find themselves trapped in the crossfire of guerrillas, paramilitaries, and state forces. The residents of San Francisco street hoped to reinforce the rights of civilians, and prohibit the entrance of weapons and anyone bearing arms — legally or illegally.


Castillo invited me out for a walk, toward the sea, along the street. She walked calmly, smiling, until stopping in front of the remains of a destroyed ranch, in the middle of two stilted homes.

"Here, in that gap, was the house," Castillo said. "Last year, they would bring the people here to chop up. Many of us knew, but no one said anything."

"We were scared," she said. "Everything around here was fear. By five, there were no kids in the street. We would all lock ourselves up, and pray that nothing more would happen to us."

In early 2014, however, the crisis reached a boiling point.

"The gang that controlled this street kidnapped a taxi driver, and extorted his wife — a woman who sold fish on the street — for his liberation. They were charging the woman about $2 million pesos [about $830 USD]. She thought that she could negotiate with them, and she went into the barrio to find the men," Castillo said.

"But as soon as she arrived at the house — Ay! — the poor woman realized that her husband was dead, and they were going to chop him up. The woman started to scream in torment. They chased her, and she ran toward the sea."

"They followed her there, in a boat. They got her with a clean machete hit, in the water, and then they tied a rock to her neck so she would sink. This all happened at 9 am, in plain view of our children," Castillo said. "That's the day we said, 'We can't go on like this.'"


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Along with the dozen other community leaders on her block, Castillo seeks to keep the peace. Days before this visit, the community managed to organize the demobilization of 14 teenagers working for La Empresa and the Usagás. During my visit, some of these young men returned to the humanitarian zone of Buenaventura, circling the community quietly, and keeping a low-profile.

"Look, there is a paramilitary," Nora said without breaking her view, her eyes full of fear and devoid of joy.

I approached the young man, in spite of several frowns from community leaders who were watching. He was no older than 19, wearing a black sideways cap, with eyes full of fear, or anger, or both. A shiny icon of the Lord of Miracles, and the Virgin of Buga, hung from his neck.

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He didn't say much. He said that he had been locked up, that he had nothing to do, and that all he did was pray. He pulled a card out of his pocket and gave it to me.

"Rehab center for alcohol and drugs," the card read. "Society says once an addict, always an addict, but Jesus Christ said 'Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free' — John 8:32."

Seconds later, two police officers grabbed him and escorted him away from the humanitarian area.


Thanks to a few local contacts, we managed to secure an interview with two young gang killers, or sicarios. The pair cater to the more than 40 professional mobsters, who — according to the local command of the Marine Infantry Brigade — have helped turn Buenaventura into a cemetery for dismembered bodies.

Watching them arrive left me speechless. Even if they wanted to, these kids could not disguise how young they were; they couldn't have been older than 18 or 19, and agreed to be interviewed anonymously.

One assassin asked that we call him Juan David. The other, a girl, wanted to be called Jessica Paola. They arrived at the interview smiling and playing, as if they were 14 years old again. They had been neighborhood playmates as kids.

After time spent fighting for the interests of opposing gangs, both joined the Usagá clan, the new mafia in town. Every month, the gang gave them $900,000 Colombian pesos, roughly $400. This was substantial in a city where 50 percent of the young people don't go much further than elementary school, and unemployment surpasses the national average — 63.3 percent in 2010, according to the national bureau of statistics.

They smiled and posed for the cameras. They seemed content. If I would run into them on the street, I would smile.

The young man told us that he began to dismember people at the age of 14. The first time he did it, he said, he was high on weed. Once he had dismembered his victim, he urinated on him, and then jumped on him three times — so that the dead would not return for vengeance. When that happens, Juan David said, "You get skinnier and skinnier, until you die."


After we spoke on camera, they removed their masks and hoods, and became playful again. They smiled and posed for the cameras. They seemed content. If I would run into them on the street, I would smile.

"Buenaventura, a new model for a city," a sign read at the entrance of the port planning office.

The enormous poster, which welcomes visitors to the most important administrative building in the district, is a panoramic rendering of the central coastal area, with yellow sand beaches displayed just below the two most conflictive regions in bajamar, Communes 1 and 4. Anyone who saw this banner would believe that they were looking at a sketch of Miami Beach, and not one of the most impoverished and violent cities in Colombia.

The most important urban renovation projects outlined by Buenaventura authorities in the last decade — most recently in 2006, by the Universidad del Valle — are, for the most part, stalled. The plan to intervene along the main boardwalk, called Malecón Bahía de la Cruz, only has one open route through a small area where there are no stilted homes.

The rest of the plans are stalled in part because of the resistance of the residents of bajamar. These coastal inhabitants feel they have earned the right to stay in the area, due to the years they spent creating it.

Many residents of these seaside barrios — Nayita, Centenario, La Isla, San José, Muro Yusti, Campoalegre, Viento Libre, and Playita — feel that the immense solitude with which they have had to face the violence of the past two years is related to the prevailing need for the residents to leave their homes, to open the way for the new municipal projects.


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The same is said in San José, or San Ju, the port's oldest barrio. Here, a giant seawall is being raised right in front of them, blocking local fishermen's access to the bay. Construction on the wall initially began a decade ago, in the local government's effort to begin the renovation process without further input from the local community.

Wilmer Garcés, the director of urban planning, assured me that the project would not occur without previously consulting the communities, and that the administration also had plans to "relocate" the families in bajamar to new homes in a complex called San Antonio.

San Antonio has around 500 small apartments. It was constructed with a small portion of the $55 million confiscated in 2007 from coves in Cali holding caches of drugs and weapons belonging to an apprentice drug lord — Juan Carlos Rodríguez Abadía, alias "Chupeta" — to the founders of the Cali cartel.

"Why not just let them stay where they are, and tie these communities into the renovation projects?" I asked.

"Currently, the national maritime authority does not allow us to maintain these areas with stilted homes, because there are risks associated to natural phenomena like tsunamis, tidal-waves, and what have you," Garcés said.

"What will happen to those who don't want to go?" I asked.

"We cannot force them," Garcés said, "because here we have never made a coercive effort."


During our last day visiting the port, we traveled to the San Antonio complex, about a 25-minute drive from the heart of the bajamar area, on land where Buenaventura ceases to be a city and blends into the jungle and countryside.

Walking through the small streets of the concrete citadel, designed with small planks of wood, which appear to shyly evoke the stilted-home constructions that its inhabitants left behind, we ran into Marino. The old fisherman was building a long and narrow canoe out of several types of abundant coastal wood.

I was surprised to see Marino building a boat in the middle of a landscape that at first glance seemed devoid of even a bucket of water.

The old man, wrinkled and dried out from the salt and the sun, explained with kind eyes that every once in a while, for a period of five to fifteen days, depending on the time of year, the waters of the Pacific ocean would rise so much that one of the nearby estuary's inlets would fill up with enough water to set the boats afloat.

His plan, he explained, was to wait for the next high tide, and take the boat toward the coast, to the nearest dock about two hours away, where he would then store it with a family member who refused to leave his home in bajamar.

Behind the boat that he was building, inside his unfurnished 550-square-foot concrete apartment, sat his wife Efrida, who explained to me that she slept there every day with her eight grandchildren, her daughter-in-law, and two of her children.

"Sometimes, when we are all here, we sleep like pigs," Efrida said, as her grandchildren played next to the mattresses against the wall, which at night cover the floor completely.

Women like Efrida tend to collect mussels from the roots of the aquatic trees in bajamar. Then, along with the fishermen, they sell these at the central market in Buenaventura. Now, far from the coast, they are forced to pay public transportation to arrive at the inlets, so many have decided to change their line of work altogether. Now, they do what they can to get by, offering their new neighbors assorted goods and services.

"What do you think, Doña Efrida?" I ask. "Do you like it here?"

"It's good here," she said, not thinking twice. "At least the violence doesn't reach us."

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Juan Camilo Maldonado is editor of VICE Colombia. Follow him on Twitter @DonMaldo.