The Colombian port city of Buenaventura is once again on high alert after the discovery of clandestine graves and dismembered bodies, raising questions as to whether last year’s militarization of the city has had any lasting impact.
Colombia’s largest port city drew attention last year after widespread atrocities were reported there, including sadistic violence against women and “chop-houses” where criminal gangs dismembered people with power saws.
A security surge soon followed, along with promises of hundreds of millions of pesos in social investment. And while the past year saw violence drop in Buenaventura municipality by a reported 38 percent, this temporary peace has been shattered by a series of macabre discoveries. Since the turn of the year, officials have discovered four clandestine graves in Buenaventura, while there have been two reported dismemberments — a chilling tactic that has become the trademark of criminal violence in the city.
In light of the discovery, Ombudsman Jorge Armando Otalora put out a security alert, saying his office had information about several other cases of disappearances and torture, reported Caracol Radio.
Residents from the area of the city where the four graves were found told El Colombiano that the security situation had deteriorated significantly since November, when members of La Empresa — one of two criminal organizations competing for control of Buenaventura — were released from prison.
According to locals, despite new security measures implemented early last year, extortion of businesses continues unchecked, and the “invisible borders” that divide neighborhoods into gang territories are still policed with brutal violence.
“This is a no man’s land, everything happens here and no one realizes it,” one resident told El Colombiano.
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Buenaventura has long been one of the most coveted territories in the Colombian underworld. The port is surrounded by a maze of mangrove swamps, which provide access to hidden cocaine processing laboratories and launching points for drug-laden boats headed north towards Central America. The city itself is also a logistical and money laundering hub, and a source of additional criminal revenue from extortion, local drug dealing, and nearby illegal mining interests.
Over the last two years, the port city has been a battleground for two criminal organizations: La Empresa, a faction of the cartel which once ruled Colombia’s Pacific region; and the Urabeños, a group descended from paramilitaries primarily in Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast.
When InSight Crime visited Buenaventura in early 2014, the city was at a critical moment. Murders, disappearances, and displacement were at critical levels, while news of the “chop houses” had begun to attract the attention of international media and human rights groups.
The Colombian government’s response was to militarize the city, boosting security forces with an additional 2,400 boots on the ground, reported Semana.
At first glance, the tactic appears to have at least halted the spiral of violence. According to official statistics cited by Verdad Abierta, in 2014 the number of murders in the city proper fell by 22 percent compared to 2013, while reported forced disappearances fell by 40 percent.
Last year also saw the capture of several high-ranking figures from both of the warring criminal groups. La Empresa lost its alleged top leader, as well as two men believed to be the group’s financial backers. The Urabeños, meanwhile, lost one alleged local leader, and dozens of lower-ranking members.
However, even aside from the recent discovery of clandestine graves and dismembered bodies, there are numerous indicators to suggest that these improvements represent, at best, a temporary respite from drug war violence.
Throughout the year, Buenaventura’s criminal networks have consistently demonstrated their determination to maintain not only territorial but also social control in the port city, with threats issued against journalists, human rights workers and community leaders.
It is also clear that they continue to run drug trafficking operations, and may even be developing new techniques and connections in order to smuggle cocaine northwards.
When InSight Crime spoke to coast guard officials in January 2014, they stressed that the overwhelming bulk of cocaine is moved out through the mangrove swamps, and that the port itself is only used for occasional smaller loads of up to 50 kilos. However, in March, officials seized a ton of cocaine in a port container that authorities said belonged to the Urabeños.
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Local community leaders have also said that last year’s ostensible gains reflect nothing more than the gangs’ desire to slow the violence and adopt a lower profile. Father John Reina of the Buenaventura diocese told Verdad Abierta that the war between La Empresa and the Urabeños “never ceased,” and that the two sides had agreed to avoid direct confrontations to keep their activities away from the eyes of the authorities.
Thus, despite the drop in violence, it is apparent that the Urabeños and La Empresa are continuing both their criminal activities and their dispute for control of Buenaventura and the surrounding region, throwing into doubt whether the militarization of the city will have any lasting impact.
Military and police surges are almost always temporary measures, meant to bring about a level of security that allows deeper reforms to take root. However, in Buenaventura there is little sign of these deeper reforms and the city’s organized crime networks appear prepared to wait the authorities out. With control over a wealth of highly lucrative criminal activities at stake, Buenaventura is some ways away from leaving behind the brutal violence of its past.
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