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.

It's not just the illicit narcotics market that the criminal bands have captured. It's countless legal goods as well. The armed groups charge "taxes" on local businesses and ask taxis entering their territory to pay a small fee. Food products--including everything from eggs to plantains--are controlled by the criminal organizations. Those fees have pushed prices up to a level that would be painful for a middle class Colombian but are crushing in a city where poverty is the overwhelming norm. It has also crushed countless nascent businesses from ever taking shape. "Imagine you are a displaced person and you've just arrived in the city, and your cousin grows plantains, so you think: why not sell them here in the city because that might be an economic opportunity for you," says Sulma Rodriguez, the head of the UNHCR office in Buenaventura. "You can't do it. They'll kill you for it."

Lucmila Gutierrez Garcia, the elected representative of Buenaventura's 60,000 displaced persons, puts it bluntly: "if you talk, they'll kill you." She has received countless threats from the groups calling for her to stop her work as an advocate for the city's most vulnerable communities. And she's not alone; she says that she's recorded 27 women murdered so far in Buenaventura this year, many of them fellow community leaders. "Why were they killed? Because they were organizing for their rights."

Imposing that level of social control requires one thing: fear. And that's why disappearances have become so key. "Before, the paramilitaries used massacres and bombs," Benildo Estupiñan Solis, lawyer for the youth organization Faces and Footprints (Rostros y Huellas), told me. "But they have changed their strategy to create a war without deaths." Victims' families live in a perpetual state of fear, knowing nothing about where their loved one has gone and whether they might be targeted next. Families rarely report the crimes to the authorities, for fear that if they did, it would mean certain death for the missing person. And in a small town where criminal networks touch every aspect of everyday life, it would be impossible to report the crime without the perpetrators knowing.

Even when reports do come in, there is often little that law enforcement can do short of finding a corpse or a kidnap victim, despite a nationwide process for registering claims of disappearances. Other than community organizations' tallies, there is no way to measure how many people are falling victim. What Estupiñan Solis says he knows for sure is that he and other activists have daily encounters with families who have lost a loved one.

And it's getting worse. In the last several weeks, reports of disappearances have skyrocketed in one of Buenaventura's most troubled neighborhoods, a strategically located area near the international port called Community #5. Men from outside the community and the city have entered the neighborhood, pushing their way through the shantytown toward the coveted coast. Some community members say they are FARC guerrillas, trying to infiltrate the city once again. Others are convinced that they're simply another bacrim group from another city. Either way, the new group is almost certainly seeking an entrance into the narcotics trade from a neighborhood that is host to the illicit traffic.

The resulting insecurity has made life once again unlivable for those in the neighborhood, to the extent that some are picking up and leaving until things calm down. Women and children sleep outside the neighborhood some nights, cramming handfuls of bodies into relatives' houses in another zone. Youth in particular are feeling the pressure, says Estupiñon Solis, a youth lawyer. Teens and young men have started going home in the mid afternoon, staying behind closed doors into the evening.

Yet like so many facets of life under the bacrim in Buenaventura, disappearances are taken for granted, a fact of daily life acknowledged even by the authorities. Caicedo, the city councilman, spoke openly about the phenomenon in a loud seaside café, not worried about who might hear. He told me that disappearances had become "generalized" and says that the police and security services are concerned by the trend. But he admits that some of the security forces have also been compromised, paid off or even operated by the bacrim. In addition to boosting intelligence, he suggests that the best way to control the situation would be to shed light on a practice that is intentionally secretive "to lift the shield that allows these groups to continue assassinating." But in many ways, that is a circular argument: social activists who denounce the disappearances are exactly the people who have been targeted and harassed.

For now, silence will reign. Buenaventura's violence won't show up in the statistics, so everyone can claim a victory. The authorities can point to low crime rates, and the criminals can continue to consolidate control.

"The local community and the city as a whole knows that we can't organize against it. It's total insecurity, [even though] to the authorities, there are no deaths at all," says Vidal of PCN. "The criminal organizations have complete dominion here."

*The headline has been corrected from Columbia to Colombia.