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.