Colombia's Invisible War

In the country's most violent city, crime statistics get better even as the situation gets worse

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A Colombian policeman walks amid confiscated cocaine near Buenaventura, Colombia / Reuters

BUENAVENTURA, Colombia—When you walk down the streets of Colombia's largest port city—just four years ago the most violent urban area in the country—you need not worry much about crime. Taxi drivers leave their doors unlocked and their windows down, not fearing carjacking or theft. Women walk with their purses carelessly thrown behind their shoulders, out of sight. Hotel doors get by with only shoddy doorknob locks. There is an air of safety in the seaside park, where families enjoy humid evenings scattered between cotton candy venders and live comedians. The only apparent conflict to be found is between neighboring coastal bars, blasting competing beats of Colombian rap for their patrons.

By all outward appearances, Buenaventura has been rehabilitated from its darkest hour, when it was essentially an urban combat zone. Since 2007, when the city claimed the country's highest murder rate, homicides have come down more than six-fold. Then, the primary cause of death here was gun violence. Now, residents say that street confrontations are rare.

Yet behind the calm that seems to reign, Buenaventura is still at war. This city and the neighboring towns and countryside on the Pacific coast have become a new epicenter of Colombia's four-decades-long conflict. And here in the city's countless neighborhoods, armed groups are still fighting block by block for control. "If you ask the authorities, they will tell you [the city] is better -- that the homicide rates are way down," says Victor Hugo Vidal, a leader of the local chapter of the Process of Black Communities in Colombia, which monitors community security. "But for us [living here], during the last 10 years, there has been no change."

That contradiction--between the statistics and the perception of safety on the ground--puts Buenaventura at the center of a national debate ongoing in Colombia today about whether security is getting worse again, after a decade of improvement. Citizens across the country have raised concerns about a rise in crime and armed gangs. But the government believes that the country's security on the whole continues to improve; and indeed, many criminal indicators support that case. On May 14, for example, President Juan Manuel Santos cited Buenaventura as a city where homicide rates had been spectacularly lowered.

But in Buenaventura, something terrible is happening that might explain why, even though the statistics look good, life on the ground is awful. What's changed in this small coastal town is one thing: "the modality of the violence," says Vidal. Aware of the government's push to lower homicide rates, armed groups here have turned their fight into an invisible war. "Where they used to assassinate, now they disappear," Vidal continues. According to PCN's count, at least 378 people have gone missing in the last four years--probably taken to the sea and killed. Those presumed deaths won't show up in the official numbers, allowing both the authorities and the criminal gangs to claim victory in the latest stage of this dark war.

Along the unpaved streets of neighborhoods touching the coast, stories abound of young men who simply never came home. Some were fishermen; others hustled from one construction job to another to bring home food. Maybe they heard something they weren't supposed to. Maybe they ventured unannounced into another gang's neighborhood. No one knows where or why they've been taken.

What they do know, however, is why Buenaventura is embroiled in a constant, grinding war. This city of 350,000 isn't just Colombia's most important port town; it's also the hub of narcotics trafficking. Precarious communities built on the water's edge--where the majority of the city's mostly Afro-Colombian population lives--make the perfect exit points for drugs leaving Colombia for the Pacific Ocean. In a war where every armed actor is funded by cocaine, Buenaventura's mere geography is enough to set the stage for a fight.

This war isn't new. Throughout Colombia's four decades of conflict, in fact, Buenaventura has been both a target of and a refuge from violence. First came the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, who fought their way through the jungles and toward the country's city centers, displacing, massacring, and kidnapping along the way. Initially because of ideological claims--and then increasingly for the control of the lucrative cocaine market--the rebels infiltrated Buenaventura's neighborhoods and turned the neighboring rural areas into an insurgent stronghold.

But the guerrillas didn't have the upper hand in this port town for long. Paramilitary groups, united under as the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), banded together in the late 1990's to fight back against FARC, sending violent deaths skyrocketing.. During the last decade of fighting, the more than 60,000 displaced refugees have fled for their lives, some leaving the city and some trading one troubled barrio of Buenaventura for another. Those who remain in Buenaventura today are crammed into makeshift houses so close to the coast that they flood whenever the tide rages.

Responding to the murder rate, the national government sent in troops to restore calm. Ostensibly, the paramilitaries and the government had the same goal: to rid the town of guerrillas. And so for a time, a precarious détente reigned: the barrios grew quieter, the guerrillas were pushed back to the countryside, and the streets were run under the gun of the AUC. But as the truce wore on, the armed bands grew as dependent upon -- and organized around -- the narcotics trade as the guerrillas they hoped to cleanse.

Until something happened: the paramilitaries splintered. Between 2003 and 2006, under a government organized peace process meant to take place over the subsequent six years, more than 30,000 self-professed paramilitaries gave up fighting in exchange for the promise of lighter sentences. Yet despite the thousands of demobilizations, the process left many of the criminal networks intact. A new generation of paramilitary-like criminal bands, known here as bacrim, have become the new terror of Colombia. According to estimates by the independent research center Indepaz, approximately 7,100 armed combatants are today members of various bacrim groups in 360 municipalities. (The national police put the number of fights at just below 4,000 in 159 municipalities.)

"[The paramilitaries] made a symbolic gesture [through demobilization], and it was only symbolic because they continue to operate in the same zones," says Donnelly Estupiñon, a community leader at PCN. "One day, a person demobilizes from the paramilitaries, and the next day they work for another armed group. All they did was change teams."

Now devoid of their political goals, the criminal bands have become militarized gangs interested only in illicit trafficking. "The criminal bands have taken what they learned from fighting the guerrillas and turned it into a way of living," explains Rolando Caicedo Arroyo, a city councilman in Buenaventura. Worse, because the armed groups are no longer united under one, paramilitary banner, they are fighting street-by-street for the control of Buenaventura's neighborhoods. "This is a monster with 1,000 heads," Caicedo explains. "Before, narco-trafficking was very hierarchically structured in Colombia--there were just a few organizations. Today, there are tons of small bands." So prolific are their ranks that he doesn't even know the names of the groups operating in the barrios.

The result has been the emergence of mafia-like regimes in each of Buenaventura's neighborhoods. The barriers from one fiefdom to the next are fluid and invisible to anyone who doesn't know better. Inside the communities, on the dirt streets where kids play football outside unfinished brick and wood buildings, everyone knows who's running the show.

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Elizabeth Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East.

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