Buenaventura: Drug-Trafficking, Armed Conflict and Neoliberal Peace

by Eunice Escobar, translated from Spanish original by Adrián Boutureira

Para leer el original en español…

Buenaventura, the Colombian Pacific and other regions of the country remain submerged in a wave of violence that has led to all-new highs in rates of confinement and forced internal displacement. The ancestral territory around this international port is an area affected by armed conflict and especially by illegal paramilitary-type structures. In the midst of the militarization of the State, they dispute for control of this strategic center for the global market and for illegal economies around commercial drug and arms trafficking. This is the context in which killings, threats and assassinations of social leaders have increased. This ongoing violence in ethnic territories has political, structural and ethnic roots. As we described in our call for international solidarity to end the war in Buenaventura, and as indicated by the leader Sulma Mosquera, currently living in El Centro Pazífico in Cali, the solutions to this problem must be structural and based on proposals built with the ethnic communities of the region.

In Buenaventura, during the last two weeks of February and the first two weeks of March, there were a series of activities to listen directly to the voices of the victims. They presented testimonies about the violence affecting the region despite the existence of two agreements in the implementation phase, the Agreement of the Civic Strike of 2018 and the Final Agreement for the termination of the conflict and the construction of a stable and lasting peace signed between the government of Colombia and the former FARC E-P guerrillas. In my particular case, and on behalf of the Alliance for Global Justice (AFGJ), I was also there to accompany Human Rights leaders threatened by the armed sectors and participate in the commemoration of the seventh Anniversary of the march “Entierro de la Violencia para Vivir con Dignidad en Buenaventura” (Burial of Violence to Live with Dignity in Buenaventura) originally organized by the late Archbishop Emeritus of Buenaventura, Monsignor Hector Epalza Quintero.  AfGJ took part in supporting the activities at Station 5 of the march. The theme of the station was Protection of Life and Territory. AFGJ also took part in 3 days of activities with participating embassies from various countries in a tour that included the Chapel of Memory in the Lleras neighborhood and the Humanitarian Zones of Puente Nayero and Punta Icaco in the La Playita neighborhood.

During these two weeks, the Human Rights Commission of the Senate of the Republic also visited Buenaventura and in a day session listened directly to those affected by the social and humanitarian crisis there.


Likewise, Father Francisco de Roux, president of the Truth Commission, visited Buenaventura and condemned the difficult situation in which the people of Buenaventura are living.  “We have many questions and much pain” said the priest referring to the violence that was unleashed in the month of December with the massacre that occurred on December 31, 2020, when armed men made a deadly sweep through the city searching for victims door to door to murder them. “What caused the greatest impression on me today when I was in the surroundings of the Estero, is to find that what one sees there is an absolutely unacceptable reality that cannot be, that Colombians have to live as they do in some of the areas I have seen lately.”

In similar fashion, he denounced the living conditions of the inhabitants of these communes, indicating:  “The standard of living of some people in Buenaventura is so shameful, that I do not understand how it is possible that Colombia accepts such an inhumane thing.  It is of such proportions what one sees there, it is so sad what one perceives there, it is so degrading of the human being, it is such an inhumane way for people to have to live that one is really left wondering: How is it possible that we Colombians accept that men and women with the same human dignity, with the same human greatness, with the same human depth have to live like that?”

During this visit, the special commissioner for ethnic peoples, Leyner Palacios, questioned the incoherence between the way of life and the value of firearms that some people possess: “We ask ourselves, where are we Colombians who allow this to happen to other Colombians? There is an ethical and moral responsibility here. It was disheartening to hear that young people live in houses that cost no more than six or seven million pesos, but they have rifles and weapons that cost 30 or 40 million. Someone is giving them those weapons.”

In support of the current bishop of Buenaventura, Ruben Dario Jaramillo (who received death threats for having on several occasions denounced corruption, the territorial control wielded by the powerful groups of Buenaventura, criminal groups, the wave of violence experienced by the population, displacements and drug trafficking) 14 prelates, including bishops and priests from the Colombian Pacific region, also gathered in Buenaventura to express their solidarity with Monsignor Jaramillo and to discuss the issues of violence and inequality that affect this region.


In Colombia violence began more than 50 years ago due to land tenure, conditions of injustice and inequity and the political interests of a few families that have consolidated power since the onset of the republic in the nineteenth century. Buenaventura, an ancestral territory of the black and indigenous people, was impacted several centuries ago with the installation of the main port of Colombia, a port that was beneficial to the black population while it was a national company (Colpuertos) managed by the Colombian state and with a strong union. Violence came to this port city at the same time that the national government signed the first trade agreements and began the privatization process in the framework of the free market that was promoted by the 1991 constitution, a process that favored the country’s economic sectors and favored the entry of foreign capital, the same that currently promotes the expansion and modernization.

As expressed by community leaders during our visit to the region, with the 1991 constitutional reform and the previous peace agreement with the M19 guerrilla, the “Great Economic Opening” of Colombia to the “future”, to the new global order imposed by the free market was announced under the government of President Gaviria. Within this regulatory framework, the dissolution of Colpuertos was decreed and the conditions for the modernization of the port sector and its operation through the Regional Port Companies and Port Operators were defined. This new management model of the port sector, justified under the banner of increasing the competitiveness of the sector and of the Colombian economy, led to job reductions and the outsourcing of labor at the port. Between 2012 and 2016 the Territorial Direction of Valle del Cauca has imposed sanctions for labor intermediation in the port sector in the region that exceed 11 billion pesos, while other labor regulations violations amount to 3 billion pesos.

On the other hand, Transitory Article 55 gave rise to Law 70/93 on black communities and materialized the historical dream of the Afro-Colombian people to achieve legal recognition of their territory.

However, collective titling under Law 70 failed to include the legal recognition of strategic territories of interest to the market and global capital, such as the urban area of Buenaventura where, legally and illegally, and through terror, territorial dispossession continues to be imposed to make way for the expansionary projects of the Port Companies.

Likewise, and as an effective mechanism to consolidate territorial dispossession and rights violations, the establishment decided to use the existence of the State’s internal armed conflict with different guerrilla movements to escalate the violence and implement a State policy based on paramilitarism, national security and the internal enemy, promoted for some time by the United States and financed under Plan Colombia. Thus, in Buenaventura and the rest of the Pacific region of Colombia, under the complicity and sponsorship of the military and the government, the paramilitary organization Calima Bloc was ushered in to consolidate the country’s strategic businesses.

In the mid-Pacific region and in Buenaventura, the Calima Bloc perpetrated 35 massacres between 2000 and 2004, leaving political and economic power in the hands of a mafia sector, which had been on the rise since the 1980s thanks to the Medellín cartel and the Norte del Valle cartel, from where narco-paramilitary structures such as the well-known Machos and Rastrojos made their appearance.

In April 2001, the Calima Bloc’s incursion into the Pacific region attempted to forcibly displace the population in the ancestral territory of the Consejo Comunitario del Río Naya (Community Council of the Naya River)  just when the request for collective titling had been formalized and contested by the University of Cauca. In the urban sphere, during these same years of terror and control by the Calima Block, land dispossession was consummated in the critical ancestral and collective territory of Bajo Calima, where the principle of urban expansion was invoked to later build the intermodal port of Agua Dulce with investment from International Container Terminal Services, Inc. (ICTSI) of the Philippines and PSA of Singapore. Likewise, after the massacre of the 12 young people of Punta del Este, in April 2005, the Buenaventura Container Terminal (“TCBUEN”) started operating with the investment of Oscar Isaza, a native of Buenaventura, together with Spaniards from the Barcelona-based, Grup Maritim TCB.

In 2004, with the very loudly publicized demobilization of the Calima Block, the narco-paramilitaries

Organizers meet in the Centro Pazífico to discuss responses to the crisis in Buenaventura

known as the Águilas Negras and the Rastrojos once again took control of the Pacific region, including Buenaventura and its coastal areas, giving urban control to the Empresa gang, an operation that since 2007 has implemented urban terror through the “casas de pique” (“chop houses” – residential places for torture, murder and human body dismembering)  and the “invisible borders” (invisible boundaries inside a neighborhood or territory)  always in the presence of the government  forces that make Buenaventura the most militarized city in Colombia. Since then, the control of territories not secured for port expansion and modernization have been subject to the terror and control of paramilitary structures. Meanwhile, they continue to announce new megaprojects such as the Malecón Bahía de la Cruz, Plan Máster 2050 and the international cargo airport, among others.

By 2016, when the Peace Agreement was signed, Buenaventura remained under the control of armed paramilitary elements: the structure known as La Empresa, the Urabeños, the misnamed Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) and even alleged dissidents such as the Fuerza Urbana del Pacífico (FUP) who, in the name of Front 30 of the FARC E-P, took control of corridors such as the Naya with the support and complicity of the security forces.

The reality is that in neighborhoods of Buenaventura, like La Playita, there are some sectors, such as Alfonso Lopez and Piedras Cantana, heavily impacted by extortion at the hands of different armed sectors. The population is Afro-Colombian, poor, dispersed from their community councils, and victims of forced displacement. All neighborhoods have suffered intra-urban displacement with some exceptions, such as the Puerto Nayero community that since 2014, due to the installation of the humanitarian zone and thanks to its civil resistance initiative, has enjoyed protection and security.

From the beginning of 2021 until March 17, 2021, there have been 17 massacres in Colombia, with a total of 65 victims.  Buenaventura is a clear reflection of this humanitarian crisis, a product of the non-compliance of the two historic agreements, the Peace Treaty and the Civic Strike Agreement. As indicated by the leader Maria Eugenia Mosquera Riascos, “In our rural and urban territories, we have not stopped building, resisting and weaving peace, however, the absence of political will of the national government to comply with the signed agreement, takes us back to the worst times of conflict and war.”

With the upsurge of violence in Buenaventura and according to police data, there have been 69 disappearances in Buenaventura since last year. This year, in January alone, approximately 12 people have disappeared.  The forced recruitment of girls, boys, adolescents and young people (NNAJ in its Spanish acronym) for informant network activities, logistical support, arms transportation, drug transportation, extortion, as well as for the growth of organic membership of the successor structures of paramilitarism, are increasing in all neighborhoods of Buenaventura, exceeding the figures of previous years (in some rural areas the proportion is higher than 10 cases for each NNAJ recruited by guerrilla structures, such as the FARC E-P, in times of armed conflict.

Similarly, the number of missing persons after the signing of the Final Agreement for the termination of the conflict and the Civic Strike Agreement, especially in rural areas, almost equals the cases that occurred in a period of 20 years of internal armed conflict.

In the territories with a permanent presence of state security forces deployed under the terms of the Final Peace Agreement and the presence of narco-paramilitary structures, prostitution sites are increasing and there is a high presence of Venezuelan women. Just as with the women from Buenaventura, migrant women are also subjected to various forms of sexual violence, having to relate affectionately and sexually with armed actors for their safety or to guarantee satisfaction of their needs and those of their families.

Buenaventura youth welcome international visitors

Who are the disappeared? Most of them are young men from the neighborhoods, between 14 and 25 years of age. Who disappears them? The armed sectors that we mentioned earlier and that are in the territory.  Those who fight for control of the corridor and involve them in the war. These children and adolescents become involved in the war and the illicit business due to lack of opportunities, the structural racism that these regions experience, and the lack of compliance by the government. These young victims of the invisible borders live imprisoned in their neighborhoods and in their streets. Some of them, just for crossing these invisible borders, are disappeared. The violation of armed curfews are also death sentences. These young people are forced to leave their neighborhoods, as did the children of Doña Zulma and other young people who are now in the Centro Pazifico, now operating at full capacity.

In Buenaventura, the most militarized city in Colombia, we ask ourselves, where is the military presence? Because there is no end to this violence that ends the lives of young black people. Why do the lives of young blacks in Buenaventura and the Pacific not matter?

Visiting these neighborhoods, I can only refer to the neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago, where black and Latino youth are the victims of structural racism in the United States. Keeping proportions in mind, the conditions are identical: lack of access to education, lack of access to health care, lack of economic opportunities and lack of a nuclear family and a protective environment. Easy access to weapons, drugs and crime as a labor option. This lack of opportunities has also led them to take up arms and participate in a war between armed groups (gangs) generating a number of victims that reaches the level of genocide. Similarly in Chicago and the United States, police force and violence is the solution given us by the system of racism and the lack of real commitment on the part of the government. So-called black-on-black crime, the fruit of state genocide and ethnocide, continues to take our Afro youth in the Colombian Pacific and in Chicago.

This violence is explained by the control and terror that must be imposed on the communities and ethnic peoples, the ancestral owners and inhabitants of the territories now set for expansion and modernization, in this case, of port activity. This has been the most effective way for the Colombian government to sow terror, fear and silence, for drug trafficking and to perpetuate the political power of the elites at the service of their own interests and of the international market. Evading its political and legal responsibilities for human rights violations, this government that failed to comply with the Civic Strike Agreements and the Peace Agreement, and has perfected out of its paramilitary strategy, an effective policy of population and territorial control.

So what is the State’s non-compliance?

The Pacific region with its social and humanitarian crisis is an example of the non-implementation of the agreement. One of the most serious threats to peace is the Colombian government’s refusal to comply with the agreement with respect to points one and four, which deal with land issues and illicit crops. This non-compliance has been encouraged by the U.S. government, in particular:

  1. The non-implementation of Points 1 and 4, the National Program for the Integral Substitution of Illicitly Used Crops (PNIS for its Spanish acronym) and the Program for Development with a Territorial Approach (PDET for its Spanish acronym).
  2. Point 3.4, which was to guarantee in Buenaventura and Tumaco a pilot strategy for the effective dismantling of the successor structures of paramilitarism.

On many occasions, when campesinos have protested to demand that the government honor its commitments for rural development and inclusion in illicit crop substitution programs, instead of fulfilling its duties, the Armed Forces, and in particular the Mobile Anti-riot Squadron (ESMAD for its Spanish acronym) -co-founded and armed by the U.S., have attacked the civilian population while the armed sectors continue to assassinate social leaders, human rights defenders, campesinos, Afro-Colombians, indigenous people and peace signatories.

In three decades of terror and narco-paramilitary control in Valle del Cauca, with a clear epicenter in Cali, northern Valle and Buenaventura with its strategic corridors, it is evident that it has been the best scenario for the consolidation of what can be called neoliberal peace.This signifies the circulation of legal and illegal goods matters more than the life of the population, evidenced by thousands of people disappeared, murdered, displaced from an ancestral and biodiverse territory, which is offered to the highest bidder;  where the murders are not the product of elimination among bandits,  but fully related to the transnational business of drug trafficking, the global mercantile interests  of the country’s largest port and the perpetuation of political power in the hands of the same elite that has governed Colombia since its existence as a Republic. In the midst of torture and death houses, mass graves, dispossession, misery, racism and new slavery, Buenaventura continues to consolidate itself as the CAPITAL OF THE PACIFIC ALLIANCE, for transnational trade agreements.

For all of the above, we call on the international community to support the following demands:

  • That the government of Colombia comply with the Agreements of the Civic Strike.
  • That the Colombian government truly comply with the Peace Accords, and in particular with points 1 and 4.
  • That the government of the United States support this initiative.
  • That the government of Colombia dismantle, and the U.S. not finance, the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD in its Spanish acronym), as it has become the primary instrument of state repression against protest mobilizations in the countryside over land and eradication;
  • That the government of Colombia comply with the agreement, that it NOT resume aerial spraying in the countryside, and that the United States not advocate for aerial spraying, as it is a practice that puts the health of communities at risk and damages the environment;
  • That the government of Colombia put an end to the assassinations and massacres against members of popular movements and signatories of the Peace Accords, and not allow impunity for the authors and perpetrators of these crimes.
  • That the Colombian government release political prisoners in accordance with the Final Peace Accord and that the U.S. government release Simon Trinidad

Send an email to Colombian and international authorities in support of these demands!

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