The criminal butchers who have earned the port of Buenaventura a macabre reputation as the torture house of Colombia’s drug war seem to reserve a special cruelty and sadism for the city’s women. Their work speaks volumes about the complex dynamic between conflict, crime, and violence against women in Colombia.

The stories are chilling. Women and girls with their heads, limbs and breasts cut off, the parts publically displayed, left in trash bags or thrown into the sea. Women that are raped, and left dead with objects inserted in their vaginas. Members of an armed group that cut off a woman’s buttocks and used them in a game of soccer.

In 2013, monitoring groups recorded 13 murdered girls and women — down from a high of 38 in 2011 (although official figures are lower). But the femicides are just the bloody face of a problem that goes much deeper. Buenaventura’s women say the cycles of conflict the city has endured have also fuelled sexual abuse and domestic violence by bestowing a sense of power and impunity on the actors in the conflict; what the men with guns want, they can take, and no one has the right to stop them.

Abuse in a War Zone

On March 8, International Women’s Day, Buenaventura recorded its ninth murder of a woman in 2014. Although police immediately arrested the woman’s romantic partner, the Network Against Violence Towards Women – Buenaventura put out the following statement:

The murders of women are not coincidental, they are not because of social intolerance, they are not mistakes, a passionate fight, or because they were a “collaborator,” and “informant.” They are not because a woman is a “slut” or because she is in the wrong place. Ending the justification of these deaths will bring us closer to the truth about the war in Buenaventura.

The war in Buenaventura currently involves a battle for the city and surrounding drug routes between two paramilitary-criminal hybrids; the country’s leading criminal organization, the Urabeños, and their local rivals, La Empresa (The Business).

But the calls to recognize the connections between the conflict and violence against women predate the Urabeños invasion of the city in 2012. In fact, for these women, who is fighting the war and what they are fighting for is largely irrelevant. What matters is what the war unleashes in the men who fight it.

“There are many men, armed actors legal and illegal, that raise the risks that women face because of the power and control they take in the area,” said “Luz,” who works with several women’s rights organizations in the region and who did not want her real name published for security reasons.

Sometimes women become victims because their partners or relatives join armed groups, or because they are labeled a collaborator by one side or the other. Other times, it is because of the whims and lusts of members of armed groups.

“[Women and girls] are like sex objects, a little sexual toy they can have at any time because she is the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood, or because she is the virgin of the neighborhood, or because the girl acts in a way the armed groups consider ‘anti-social,’” said Luz.

The extreme violence, Luz believes, is both a deliberate message sent to communities about where the power lies, and a reflection of the objectification of women in a macho society.

“[For the perpetrators] this body is my sexual object, my object of pleasure and it also becomes my object of military pleasure,” she said.

Luz is convinced the violence and reactions to it also have a racial element, in a city that is close to 90 percent Afro-Colombian.

“Those who they are killing are black women and black women in social terms, aren’t worth much, they are third class women,” she said.

“Liliana,” a leader of a local women victims group, who also did not want to be named, has seen women and girls in her neighborhood fall victim to gang rape, torture and murder. Her explanation for the horrific violence is simpler. “All of this has become a sickness of the heart,” she said.

Buenaventura’s women say this violence has been a hallmark of the conflict throughout all the cycles of war the city has endured; the various conflicts between guerrilla militias and paramilitaries, and the mafia wars waged by their narco-paramilitary successors.

In the current cycle of violence, La Empresa and the Urabeños’s military campaigns involve arming neighborhood youths to control territories on their behalf. Residents report these gangs also recruit young girls and women to use as informants, to exploit as prostitutes or to abuse as collective girlfriends, available to any gang member that wants them.

SEE ALSO: The Victory of the Urabeños: The New Face of Colombian Organized Crime

“They give them alcohol, they give them drugs, and they sexually abuse them,” said Liliana.

Once a part of gang life, the damage to their lives is often permanent. “These girls, and women too, lose their values, they lose their self-esteem,” she said.

However, it is not just those old enough to recruit that are at risk, and even intra-familial abuse of young children can often be traced back to the conflict.

“It is the family members that are involved in armed groups that rape [children] in the night, when they are sleeping,” said Luz. “And the family knows, but because they have the power of the gun, they can go to the house and do what they like.”

Changing the Chip

Women’s groups in Buenaventura have spent years criticizing the authorities (pdf) for denying violence against the city’s women is intrinsically linked to the armed conflict, and for instead treating cases as domestic matters best resolved in private, or as crimes of passion.

Now, though, it looks like the message might be getting through.

One of the most significant strides the city has taken was the opening of a new Victims Attention Center in October last year. Run by the Attorney General’s Office, the center offers a free integrated service to victims of sexual abuse and violence, providing psychological and legal support and helping victims access to other services such as medical care.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

Part of the new processes is an assessment of each victim’s case to see if they are connected to the conflict.

“Before, we worked on these types of investigations in an isolated way,” said Sandra Carillio, head of the Attorney General’s Office in Buenaventura and the coordinator of the Victims Attention Center. “Now we are going to do an analysis of the context to see if a case is effectively a domestic situation or if it has any link to criminal actors.”

The results of the new assessments are yet to come in, but so far Carrillo remains reluctant to draw deeper connections beyond those women directly involved in the conflict.

“We can’t say that violence against women, for example intra-familial violence or sexual crime, is directly linked to criminal organizations, and in recent murders it has turned out that almost all the women were part of these organizations,” she said.

While the new victims center and other measures have been broadly welcomed by women’s rights campaigners, they insist that if the authorities are to make real progress, then reforms must go beyond the institutional and also take on deeply ingrained social attitudes.

“[Many investigators] have it in their heads that this is a cultural problem, a bedroom issue, that the men are macho and they like to hit and rape women, and that the women like to be hit,” said Luz. “They don’t look for a different working strategy and ways to approach the community, because ‘it’s cultural’ so there is nothing that can be done about it.”

However, this too is a problem that authorities are starting to acknowledge, according to Carrillo, who said Attorney General’s Office officials are now undergoing sensitivity training on how to deal with such cases.

“All of us have to change this chip that we have in our heads that tells us that violence against women is just domestic cases or bedroom problems,” she said.

Women at War

While the Attorney General’s Office is attempting to reach out to victims, the Colombian government has decided to take on the perpetrators of violence in Buenaventura by flooding the city with military and police reinforcements.

Yet ongoing killings and mass displacements, and the discovery of torture houses are telltale signs the battle for Buenaventura continues to rage. As in previous wars, the city’s women are still left with the same stark choice: submit to the violence or put their lives at risk by resisting without arms or support.

“A lot of the time, those that confront the armed actors without weapons are the women,” said Luz. “And a woman without a weapon has much more strength, more potency, than an armed man.”