Despite a government intervention in Buenaventura last year, Colombia’s Pacific port city is still wracked by violence as criminal groups continue to kill, extort, and disappear victims, according to a new report by NGO Human Rights Watch.
In March 2014, the Colombian government attempted to combat endemic violence in Buenaventura by sending 2,400 troops to secure the city and announcing it would invest hundreds of millions of dollars in social programs. Yet one year on from the intervention, the port city is still in the grips of neo-paramilitary organizations known as BACRIM (from the Spanish for “criminal bands”) and left-wing guerrillas, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.
“A year has passed since the government announced it was going to take action in Buenaventura, and powerful criminal groups are still terrorizing residents,” Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco stated in the report.
BACRIM displaced close to 7,000 residents in the months following the announcement of the security surge, according to the report, making Buenaventura the city with the highest rate of forced displacement in Colombia. Guerrilla groups — principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — also forcibly displaced over 2,300 individuals between April and September 2014, primarily in Buenaventura’s rural areas.
Perhaps most worrying of all, the number of dismembered bodies found by authorities has risen — six were located in the first two months of 2015 alone, compared to 12 in all of 2013 and 14 last year. Buenaventura became recognized for this brutal tactic through the discovery of “chop-houses” run by criminal groups, one of the factors that compelled the government to militarize the city.
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Field research conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2014 as well as in February 2015 revealed fierce territorial disputes among the Urabeños and La Empresa criminal groups that have essentially prohibited residents from crossing the “invisible borders” between neighborhoods. In addition to controlling Buenaventura’s criminal activities, BACRIM also control some sectors of the legitimate economy. Prosecutors told Human Rights Watch that vendors of basic food products such as eggs, meat, and cheese need permission from BACRIM in order to sell their goods.
Nevertheless, there do appear to be some positive signs the government intervention may be improving Buenaventura’s security situation. Murders were down by 36 percent between April and December 2014, compared to the same period in 2013. In addition, while Human Rights Watch signaled that impunity continues to reign for essentially all types of serious crimes, the addition of eight new prosecutors — as well as investigators sent from other parts of the country — has led to arrests in two dismemberment cases from April 2014. Last year authorities also arrested over 280 alleged members of criminal organizations in the city.
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As the site of Colombia’s largest port — which criminal groups use to send drug shipments — Buenaventura has long been a hub for criminal activity. However, Human Rights Watch’s investigations indicate that rather than substantially improving the city’s security situation, the government’s intervention may simply be forcing criminal groups to keep a lower profile after years of essentially open warfare between rival gangs.
One justice official told Human Rights Watch his office has “credible” information that criminal groups are switching to burying bodies in hidden graves rather than dumping them in the ocean, where they can be easily spotted once they wash ashore. In the past year, authorities have discovered 18 cadavers in clandestine graves. In addition, one priest in Buenaventura told conflict monitoring organization Verdad Abierta that criminal groups have agreed to avoid direct confrontations in order to not “draw the attention of authorities.”
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Yet, a lower profile does not necessarily bring improved security. This new approach by criminal groups may explain why reported disappearances went up by 10 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to government statistics cited in the report, yet homicides decreased considerably in the second half of 2014. The apparently growing use of hidden graves suggests that an increasing number of murder victims may be reported as disappeared, and are therefore not included in homicide data. This dynamic has previously been seen in El Salvador, and most likely in Mexico as well.
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