by Maya Hernández
Send an email to Colombian authorities to demand an end to the displacement and violence in Buenaventura
Buenaventura is the main port for Colombian foreign trade and the second largest city in the prosperous state of Valle del Cauca. Historically, the territory has been inhabited by Afro-descendants, indigenous peoples, and campesinos. Despite the diversity and cultural richness of this territory, it is primarily known for its high levels of poverty, difficulties in accessing public services, health, decent housing, and education. These conditions have derailed the lives of the inhabitants to unimaginable extremes.
Violence and threats against the inhabitants of the poorest neighborhoods of Buenaventura have become increasingly commonplace. In 2006, the recently deceased Archbishop Hector Epalza, denounced the poor living conditions of the people of Buenaventura. In 2012, after being silenced due to death threats, Monsenor Epalza raised his voice again to denounce the violence in Buenaventura and the “chop houses”, where the dismemberment of people was perpetrated by criminal groups in that area of western Colombia.
Hundreds of people have been displaced from the coastal neighborhoods in Buenaventura as a result of growing commercial interest to convert the area into a tourist destination. These neighborhoods were once home to fishermen and welcomed the small boats that transported locals in and out of Buenaventura. Today, the government has created the Buenaventura Development Plan, which is responsible for displacing and demolishing the already established communities. These neighborhoods were also in the middle of the “progress” established by the Buenaventura Development Plan. Most people from these areas were forced to leave and relocate due to the violence and to give way to the “Malecon”, a touristic walkway around the edges of the City and to port expansions. Today, the displaced live in the neighboring city of Cali, the Capital of the Valle del Cauca state.
Broken promises offered up by a corrupt government led to the 2017 Paro Civico (civic strike), from May 16, 2017 to June 6, 2017. Despite the human rights violations committed by Colombia’s ESMAD, the U.S.-trained and armed Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron and other public forces that have tried to intimidate and silence the strike, the people of Buenaventura, alongside more than a hundred social, civic, religious and community organizations were able to negotiate the historic triumph and the creation of The Autonomous Fund. This fund is expected to create better access to health, education, public services and housing, with an investment of 1.5 billion pesos that will run for 10 years.
In 2020, the Alliance for Global Justice, along with several grassroots organizations in Colombia, opened the Pacific Center for Human Rights in Cali (Centro Pazifico). The space will be used as an office for various human rights organizations, as a safe meeting place for like-minded groups, an educational space, and will provide short and medium term lodging for people who have been displaced as a result of paramilitaries, gangs and armed groups, and other forms of political and organized violence who have made it impossible for them to stay at home. Currently, the space is being used to lodge Afro-Colombians who have been forced out of their communities in Buenaventura because of escalating confrontations between local armed groups in the Juan XXIII neighborhood. One of these victims is Sulma Mosquera, a Buenaventura community member who has been displaced as a result of recent death threats. Her account of the violence permeating Buenaventura is important and timely:
“I have been a part of the social struggles within my community for the past ten or eleven years. Prior to that I worked more formal jobs but participated in the struggle when she could. For the past ten years I have focused solely on uplifting the social struggles in my community in Buenaventura.”
Sulma became more involved in supporting the work of her community after the priest of the San Franciscan Church in Buenaventura invited her to be part of a group of activists:
“We had approximately 25 people in the community who we catered to. We asked ourselves what are the issues that have worsened? Ten or eleven years ago the main issue was that children were being aggressively recruited by armed groups. Adolescent girls were exploited sexually. I worked for the Fundación Rostros y Huellas del Sentir Humano. We spent most of our time focusing on the youth, specifically young girls, within the organization. We started several projects, and reached many across the community, but we also dealt with several conflicts and obstacles. All members of the organization received threats. Many of my co-workers now travel with protection. We kept our office location a secret”
Now living at the Centro Pazifico, Sulma recalls the crisis confronting her community in Buenaventura:
“Buenaventura has every violence you can imagine. How is it possible that the community cannot receive the support of the police? The police stay on the highways, the safe places and don’t enter the neighborhoods or “comunas” to deal with the violence that the armed groups impart.
There is no peace, there is no tranquility. I came here to the Center thankfully to seek refuge.
The people from Buenaventura realize that covid is not what is going to kill us. What is going to kill are the continued violent struggles between armed groups. That is what is really going to kill us.
We are alone in Buenaventura. We are alone. But we can’t allow them to come in and end with all the youth. The system does not work here. It does not work for the people of Buenaventura. The national government is not listening to it’s people, to its communities.
We are over-diagnosed. We know what the problems are. Everybody knows. What we need is to apply solutions to the problems so that they actually work, so that they actually help people.
For example, the person that the government hires to come asks me a couple of questions and tells me they can send someone to watch my house. But then they leave my house and somebody dies. The person who came to ask me the questions can wash his hands of everything because he did his job perfectly. The issue is not that. The issue is that we need things to change so that they are actually helping people.
I have no guarantees. I have no protections.
I want to know who calls the shots in Buenaventura. Who is in charge of all this violence? We don’t know. We are kept in the dark.”
The emergency situation threatening the lives of those living in Buenaventura is of extreme concern and calls for our immediate attention and solidarity. “When one receives a threat in Colombia, it’s difficult to even consider going to the police since they work so closely with these armed groups. I’m not going to go ask for safety from the same people who are putting us in danger” she indicated.
On February 10, 2020, the people of Buenaventura marched 22 kilometers, demanding peace for their community. They were led by bishop monsenor Rubén Darío Jaramillo, a powerful symbol that the violence needs to stop.
As people committed to international solidarity with global struggles against racism, poverty, and violence, we must add our voices to theirs and demand nothing less than Peace for Buenaventura!
Provide necessary attention and support to families who are in vulnerable situations as a result of more than 300 displacements caused by armed confrontations that occurred throughout 2020.
– Take effective measures to handle the situation and protect the lives of social leaders.
– Comply with the agreements reached by the communities and organizations at the Civic Strike to Live in Peace and with Dignity in Buenaventura.
The AfGJ is committed to continuing to provide support to the displaced people by partnering with grassroots organizations to keep The Pazific Center open and available when necessary. If you want more information about the Pazific Center or would like to contribute to support this initiative, please contact [email protected].