What Happens When a Colombian City Ruled by Extortion Finally Says No?

As Colombia’s busiest port, Buenaventura does business with harbors around the world. Because of its strategic location, the port is also a primary artery for cocaine leaving the country. As Colombian paramilitaries have reinvented themselves into...

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Mar 20 2014, 3:10pm

Dayana sitting in front of her grandmother's corner store. Photos by Peter D’Amato

“Whether you sell clothing, food, or anything else, every store and business pays for ‘protection’ here,” says 16-year-old Dayana, standing in front of the corner store her grandmother runs out of her home in Buenaventura, Colombia. Extortion in this city of 375,000 isn’t limited to businesses, she adds, shaking her finger. “People are being charged 2,000 pesos [about a dollar] a day just to live in their homes. If you went right up the hill, they’d charge you 5,000 pesos [about $2.50] just for being a stranger in their neighborhood.” In this Colombian city, protection is an offer you can’t refuse—those who don’t pay with cash often pay with their lives.

As Colombia’s busiest port, Buenaventura does business with 300 harbors around the world. Because of its strategic location on the Pacific coast, the port is also a primary artery for cocaine leaving the country—250 tons of the stuff comes through here annually. Over the last 15 years, as Colombian paramilitaries have reinvented themselves into street gangs and cartels, the city has become a war zone. Two rival gangs in particular, La Empresa (“the Business”) and the Urabeños, are currently vying for territory here, and innocents are being slaughtered in the cross fire.

Displacement due to the violence in this port city is at a critical level: In the last 18 months alone, more than 7,000 have fled their homes. In 2007, when the New York Times dubbed Buenaventura “Colombia’s Deadliest City,” the homicide rate here stood at 144 per 100,000 people—compare that with Detroit, which has a rate of 55 per 100,000, or Flint, Michigan, which has a rate of 63. Following a sudden and drastic drop, the murder numbers are on the rise again. Two months into 2014, at least 58 people had already been killed. Dozens more are missing.

For Buneaventura merchants, paying a “vacuna,” a cheeky euphemism meaning vaccination, is a necessary cost of doing business. Those that don’t pay up are likely to meet a violent end. This past Tuesday, Extra Buenaventura reported the death of three fishmongers who failed to pay extortion fees—their bodies were tossed onto the waterfront.

“We know the vacuna adds to the violence,” says Dayana. “In order to stop the violence, you have to stop paying the bribes.”

On March 12, the city of Buenaventura vowed to do just that. Business and community leaders organized a plantón, a general strike to declare that no bribes would be paid from here on out. From the slums of the city’s deadly waterfront to the unusually quiet downtown district, the city had a festive air on the day of the plantón: kids played soccer in the streets, men hunched over domino tables, and women leaned back on their stoops. Signs reading “If the buffalos unite then the lions don’t eat them,” a reference to a popular Youtube clip, were plastered across storefronts. A procession of cars blasted music and honked their horns as they coursed through the city’s main thoroughfare. In front of city hall, thousands gathered to listen to musicians and political and religious leaders. Though the mood was cautiously optimistic, residents here know that the vacuna is a symptom of a systemic problem, and that the odds against peace are heavily stacked.

Jhon Jairo Castro with his son Gilmar in their home

Thirty-eight-year old Jhon Jairo Castro and his family live in Buenaventura’s Alberto Lleras Camargo barrio. It’s a relatively calm neighborhood, though his wife Yurani is quick to recall last Christmas Eve when a man carrying an assault rifle passed by their front door—a door kept locked whether or not anyone’s home. Their home, built of two-by-fours, chainsaw-cut planks, and a corrugated roof, is by no measure roomy, but it’s tidy, inviting, and offers just enough space for Castro, Yurani, and their three children.

Despite living in one of the wettest places on earth, Castro’s family only has access to running water every other day. On those days, they store reserves in two 50-gallon barrels. Between drinking water, laundry, dirty dishes, and showers for five, 100 gallons goes quick.

Castro began working for Buenaventura’s port in 1995, a few years after it was privatized. In the two decades since, work conditions in the port have deteriorated. “We’re not working in offices,” Castro says. “We’re not doing minimum-wage work—people have been crushed by containers, and we work with dangerous chemicals.” And yet every worker interviewed for this piece works is paid a minimum wage (under $350 per month) or even less—Castro says that some third-party hiring firms dock social security fees directly from employees' wages. When ship traffic is high, port workers have to work 24 to 36 hours in a row—“the devil’s shift,” they call it.

In 2009, Castro became president of the local chapter of Union Portuaria, a longshore labor union. Because of his organizing activity, he’s been blacklisted from employment. His friends in the industry have to conceal their union membership to avoid similar fates. To make ends meet, Castro’s entered the city’s informal employment sector, renting out minutes on his cell phone to neighborhood residents. Unemployment in this city stands at an unbelievable 64 percent, despite the fact that the city generates $1 million per year in tax revenue from the ports. Sixty-three percent of this overwhelmingly Afro-Colombian city lives in poverty.

When the daytime heat settles, Castro takes his family on a walk to his aunt’s house near the waterfront. Here, the streets are entirely unpaved—debris and jetsam litter unclaimed lots. Across the creek from her home is a no man’s land, a territory at the mercy of the gangs. Castro says that’s where Buenaventura’s infamous “chop houses” are located, ghoulish places where kidnapped people are strapped to tables and dismembered alive with power tools. Body parts are dumped in the water or else scattered across neighborhoods—“that’s the method they use these days to create panic,” Castro says. A week ago, El Espectador reported that in the two weeks leading up to March 5, a dozen unidentified body parts were pulled from the water. Castro’s aunt says her son witnessed one of the murders and testified in the prosecution. Since then, she says, her son has disappeared.

The next morning, Castro leaves for a union conference. Yurani stays home, cooking and taking care of the children. There’s plenty of water running through the pipes today, and Yurani takes advantage of the opportunity to do the dishes and laundry. On TV, a correspondent delivers the usual: another murdered taxi driver, another missing person. Yurani shakes her head in the kitchen. “Every day, they kill someone for nothing.”

Buenaventura's waterfront houses

The desperate conditions in Buenaventura recently prompted Javier Marugo, the national president of the Union Portuaria, to liken the city to “a tunnel with no exit.” Officials are seemingly deaf to the city’s institutional problems—poor labor rights, mass displacement, ballooning utility fees, and inconsistent access to water—opting instead to flood the streets with hundreds of police and military officers, often to little effect. Corruption is rampant: Three years ago the former mayor and three auditors were arrested for alleged embezzlement after $350,000 in contract payments went missing. “Members of these criminal organizations work with state officials,” Castro says. “If the government wanted to get rid of these groups, it could.”

In the face of government inaction, recent international pressure and a grassroots movement against corruption, mismanagement, and violence are leading from behind and offering Buenaventura citizens a glimmer of hope for a more secure existence. This past November, the UN high commissioner for human rights in Colombia, Todd Howland, visited Buenaventura and called on authorities to adopt “urgent measures in order to end the violence.” In late February, more than 30,000 citizens rallied for a “Burial of Violence in Buenaventura” march.

“This is a message to the government that it has to respond with public works, with investment,” says Adonai Cardenas Castillo, a Buenaventura correspondent for the regional newspaper El Pais during a phone interview.

The protests from these past two months are the precursors to an even larger general strike on May 21. “The community is consolidating its forces—President Santos will have to respond to these complaints.” 

In the meantime, though, the impact of last week’s rally against extortion remains to be seen. Two days after the march, news surfaced that the body of a Buenaventura merchant had been discovered in a nearby city. He was last seen alive at the plantón, protesting the vacuna.

Follow Michael Zelenko on Twitter.

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