By José Luis Valencia and Carolina Bohórquez, EL TIEMPO, February 19, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
In January alone, there were 23 murders, almost twice as many as in the same period of 2020. Poverty is double the national average; intra-urban displacement and drug trafficker violence continue to terrify the more than 400,000 residents of Buenaventura. The Bishop says that the “chopping houses” have moved to the estuaries.
Months before he appeared, mutilated, between two neighborhoods in Buenaventura, Jeremias Riascos Tobar started changing his daily routines. He did it when he left his house in La Playita; he went by other labyrinths of open streets and repeated the same plan on his way home, trying to outsmart those unknown people that had put a price on his head. In the end, all of his precautions were for naught; the killers had hunted him down.
This 44-year-old man from Buenaventura has been harassed by threats, the kind that aren’t expressed in words, like the ones that have intensified in the last two years in these parts of the country that are teeming with poverty and lack of opportunities, ever since alias “Julito” and Diego Optra were arrested. The two of them were the visible heads of “La Local”, the modern version of the paramilitary gangs that didn’t demobilize in the peace process in the last decade and, with different names but the same violence, keep on the war for the coca burning with the traffic in weapons and the illegal mining in the estuaries and in the basins of the Raposo and San Juan Rivers.
There are not only coca plantings and drug laboratories around there, but there is also illegal extraction of gold, the “cursed metal”. They sneak into the port and then they’re gone, without a trace, in boats and small aircraft toward the center of the country.
The battle between the “Julito” gangs (his real name is Julio César Alegría Sánchez) and Diego Optra (Diego Fernando Bustamante Segura) kept getting worse and on December 30, 2020 there were isolated killings in the “hunting” by an armed squadron that left six people killed. 2021 didn’t start better for Buenaventura and the people who live there. They have to dodge the gunfights, the murders, extortions, threats, and disappearances carried out by undistinguishable gangs that are getting rich, dissidents from the former FARC, and a few small local mafias.
Horrifying videos of gunfights, of people fleeing in terror, have gone viral in recent weeks. A collective of young people in the port has taken on the job of telling the country and the world what’s been going on in their city through social media, with the hash tag #SOSBuenaventura. They have complained about the abandonment by the government and the indifference of society, reminding us that this is not a new problem. It’s been going on for many decades and it doesn’t look as if there’s any solution in sight.
One of the disappearances that was complained about was that of Jeremías Riascos, the man who changed his walking route but still was unable to cheat death. He was a neighbor from the Puente Nayero humanitarian space in La Playita. His family didn’t hear from him for a whole day, but the next day the authorities called them to tell them that they had found his dismembered remains some 12 kilometers away from his house. They were found at the limits between the neighborhoods of Gamboa and 6th of January. The Riascos are also on that long list of people that had to abandon their houses and look for other neighborhoods because of their fear; they are the intra-urban displaced.
The District Clerk, Edwin Janes Patiño, believes that the internal displacements are getting worse, back to the level in 2014, when the whole country was in an uproar after hearing that Bishop Héctor Epalza, who recently died, had filed a complaint about the ghoulish “chopping houses”: where they tortured the victims and later dismembered their bodies to avoid their being identified. At first the central authorities doubted the complaint, but it finally led to the militarization of the port, which is still in effect.
The current Bishop Rubén Jaramillo is not in doubt when he tells people that “’chopping up’ continues. Not in houses now, but in the estuaries, so that the bodies disappear. The families can’t go looking for the victims. Everybody knows where the gangs are, but people are afraid because there are infiltrators, and the gangs have the power of weapons; if anybody files a complaint, they kill them,” he says.
Mayor Victor Vidal, who was the spokesman for the Civic Strike in 2017, when he arrived with the government and a commitment of 10 billion pesos (about USD $2,736,320), is sure that what’s going on in Buenaventura is not just a simple vendetta between the local “capos”.
“This is not just a fight between gangs or a rivalry over a girlfriend. The boys that are dying there don’t have 25 million pesos (roughly USD $6,000) to buy a rifle. The ones that are here today are organized with international connections, coming to move the launches and the semi-submersibles to take the drugs out or bring the weapons into a territory that’s more extensive than Colombia. And from here they jump to Central America and the United States,” asserts the Mayor.
And he adds: “The heroin or the cocaine aren’t produced in Buenaventura, but they market it from here. We have a lot of our kids carrying out this war, but who’s behind it? That’s why it’s not enough to silence the guns, but we have to make sure that the control is in the hands of the authorities and the community.”
According to him, the businesses suffer the worst of the extortions. Like a cascade, the impact of that crime falls on the consumers. It works out so that in a poor city, you can’t buy an egg for 200 or 300 pesos (about $.05-$.10) you have to have 500 pesos (about USD $.15). A chicken costs twice as much here as it does in nearby localities. Then you have to add the economic burden of the pandemic. The local fishermen are going hungry in the times of the covid, same as the chontaduro (peach palm), coconut, and borojó (a fruit that grows in the rainforest) vendors. Meanwhile thousands of tons of fish are coming into the port from Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, and Viet Nam.
The President of the Chamber of Commerce, Angélica Mayolo, says that the only option for Buenaventura is to put a stop to the violence and insecurity, and bolster private investment. “Almost 3,500 companies, especially in the commercial sector, had to close their doors in Buenaventura in the last two years, and 30% of them did it because of the security problems that our population is facing,” she complained.
And everybody understands perfectly well that the violence might be the most evident problem, but it’s not the only one or even the worst one. About four years after the Civic Strike in 2017, which on one of its flags demanded a safe and decent drinking water supply for the principal port in the country, many neighborhoods in Buenaventura are still going thirsty. The levels of unemployment are higher than the national average, and multidimensional poverty is double the national rate. It’s 41% in the city, facing 19.6% in the country, and 13.6% in Valle Province.
Angélica Mayolo recognizes that the residents of Buenaventura themselves ought to take part of the responsibility for not repeating the errors or bad decisions and “lead by example and demand that the authorities act with efficiency and technical capacity.” That message is explained when you review the files and you see that in the last two years, four mayors and dozens of officials have ended up involved in criminal actions for corruption.
Mayor Vidal says that the citizens of Buenaventura have the right to overcome the 40 years of backwardness that they suffer in comparison with the national averages. Buenaventura has more than 400,000 inhabitants. It doesn’t have a university (48.3% of its students are at a low level of academic achievement) they continue to wait, as they have for decades, for the completion of the double lane road of 118 kilometers from Buga, and the road of 34 kilometers between Mulaló and Loboguerrerro. They are hoping to have something more than 21.5 million tons of cargo that moves every year and will reach more than 16 billion dollars.
With this outlook, the representative of the Chamber for Afro-Colombian communities, John Arley Murillo, on Friday proposed that the national government create a Joint Military and Social Command for Buenaventura.
The capos are running things from inside the prison.
This year the Police and the Navy reported 100 arrests in operations against the gangs. They have seized 71 guns, including 14 rifles, 22 pistols, 5 submachine guns, 3 shotguns, and 2 grenade launchers. Also 9 grenades, 9 communication radios, and 37 carriers for weapons of different calibers. And they have seized 324 kilos of chlorohydrate of cocaine.
For the captures of commanders, “La Local” was divided between the “Spartans” and the “Shotas”. According to the authorities, the “capos” continue to give orders from the prison, but in the neighborhoods, the names that people are afraid to hear are “Pepo” and Jorge Isaac Campo Jiménez, alias “Mapaya” or “Fidel”.
“Two gangs are terrorizing the inhabitants of Buenaventura. Our job: Catch them ASAP. To do that, we’re offering up to 200 million pesos (roughly USD $570,000) reward for the capture of each of the commanders,” says the Director of the Judicial Police, Dijín, General Fernando Murillo
The dispute between the two capos of La Local, as well as the constant mafia warfare coincide with the increase in crime in Buenaventura between October of last year and so far in 2021. Just in January, the increase in crime was more than 200% over the same period in 2020. Those data don’t include homicide, which reportedly increased by 30%. According to the National Forensic Medicine Institute, there were 78 homicides in 2020, and just in part of January of this year, there were 23 more. That means, 91% more than the 12 registered during the same period in 2020.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, in recent weeks there has been a battle between the two gangs every single day.
This prospect brings with it more displacement among the various neighborhoods in the port city. That’s the case with the social leader Juan Pablo Mina. According to the Intereclesial Commission on Justice and Peace, he and his family have been hunted ever since November. Last November 10 he had to get away from the Punta Icaco neighborhood where he lived, close to La Playita. The Commission reports that they accused him “falsely as a National Police informant because of the continuous complaints he had made to the Attorney General’s Office and to all of the authorities, asking that they take the measures needed so that people of Punta Icaco could live freely together.”
“In spite of the fact that Juan Pablo has been complaining about the operations of the criminals in Punta Icaco for seven years, the Attorney General’s Office, the National Police, and the local authorities with jurisdiction have never investigated or taken any effective steps to protect life and safety in Punta Icaco,” the Intereclesial Commission pointed out.
And the ones that dare to raise their voices about the violence are not the only ones that are hunted. The people don’t complain very much, but a ghoulish custom is gathering force in Buenaventura: plunder. Small-time gangsters take over houses that they like, mostly in the fashionable areas. Resisting would be a fatal choice to make.
But the people aren’t just moving among the different neighborhoods. The Mayor of Cali, Jorge Iván Ospina, says that the capital of Valle Province sees the arrival of those displaced people almost every day; “little by little” they are leaving Buenaventura with nothing, just to save the lives of their families.