Buenaventura is Colombia’s main port on the Pacific seaboard and one of the principal departure points for drug shipments. Long fought over by criminal groups, the city is now the scene of peace talks with the Colombian government.
William Carvajal Obregón, alias “Jerónimo,” a tall and imposing figure dressed in military pants and a black shirt, is the spokesman for the Shottas gang. Along with their bitter rivals, the Spartans (Espartanos), the Shottas are engaged in peace talks with President Gustavo Petro’s government. Petro campaigned and won in part based on his “Total Peace” plan to bring an end to Colombia’s six-decade civil conflict.
The Shottas and Spartans are the latest in a long line of criminal groups that have fought for control of Buenaventura’s ports, which process billions of dollars in goods each year. Set amid slums built on stilts over the fetid waters of the bay, the port guarantees riches for whoever sets tolls on the cocaine passing through Buenaventura bound for international destinations.
Since the 1990s, a wide range of armed actors have fought to control Buenaventura, from the 30th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) to the Calima Bloc of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). The names of the groups have changed over the years, but many of their members remain.
For almost ten years, a gang called the Local controlled much of the city. However, at the end of 2020, changes in its leadership led to a violent split and the formation of two new gangs: the Shottas and the Spartans.
The city of Buenaventura is divided across the coastal mainland and a nearby island. The Spartans’ stronghold is the island, which is connected to the rest of the city by a single bridge. That bridge marks the border with the Shottas’ mainland territory. Both gangs fiercely control the city’s neighborhoods, especially those with access to the sea. There, tucked between houses, clandestine wharves harbor small boats carrying illegal goods like contraband, weapons, and drugs.
The violent turf war between these two gangs ended, almost completely, on October 19, 2022, when the two groups began a formal dialogue with Petro’s government. But the government’s peace plan currently lacks a legal framework for continuing negotiations, and, one year on, no great strides in progress have been achieved. With Total Peace running into problems elsewhere, there is a sense that time is running out. InSight Crime spoke to Jerónimo about the Shotta’s expectations at this crucial moment.
InSight Crime (IC): What are the Shottas’ expectations for the negotiation process with the government? What are they looking for?
Jerónimo (J): The main thing I hear from the people I represent is a desire to live without worry: ‘I can’t go out; if I go two blocks down, things could happen to me and my family members.’ Our family members have become involuntary targets, and wherever they go they are discriminated against.
The idea is to put an end to all this and for the city to be truly calm because the conflict has caused suffering for many families who have nothing to do with it. It is also important to bear in mind that for a long time the state has not remembered Buenaventura. The idea is that the state should not forget the young people of Buenaventura.
IC: So there is a social component to the process?
J: The state has always neglected Buenaventura, both in the urban and rural areas. Buenaventura is the main port on the Pacific coast and a lot of money passes through it, but it is neglected by the state. There is no social investment.
And people live in very precarious conditions, which means that they are forced to make a living through other activities. Among these activities is what is called “rebusque” (a slang term for the informal economy, or work that people have to do to survive) and that is what has caused [the problems].
IC: In this context of state neglect, how confident are you that the government will comply with what was agreed in the negotiations?
J: We believe very much in the government of Gustavo Petro because he has been working for the working class for a long time. So far he has fulfilled his promises, and we hope that this continues. But things with the government are very slow.
That is why laying down arms is the final step. If you don’t see the government complying, then why would you lay down your arms? We hope that the government will be able to meet the needs of the people and that there will be a sustainable program for those who are currently taking up arms. That is what is most wanted.
IC: How does the roundtable work, and what is the current stage of negotiations?
J: This socio-legal roundtable is the first step towards maintaining peace in the port until the senators approve the legal framework for peace. That is where they say to us: These are the penalties you are facing, and you have to avoid repeat offenses. From there, negotiations begin regarding how to carry out minimum sentences. It can’t all be prison. For example, it could be in exchange for social work in Buenaventura.
Buenaventura, as the main port on the Pacific coast, is sought by many groups. Merchandise, drugs, contraband, and other illegal goods all pass through here, making for a strong economy. If one group from Buenaventura leaves, others will come. So, we have to consider that as well.
IC: Is there a ceasefire in Buenaventura between the gangs?
J: Yes, we agreed to a zero-aggression ceasefire. We also agreed to reduce theft and extortion and to eliminate the invisible borders [between our territories], which are the most disruptive to public order. This has been in place for about a month and ten days*, and we hope that it continues to hold.
*This interview took place on September 12, 2023.
IC: After you lay down your arms, how would you finance yourselves?
J: We need [an alternative], and that is what the legal framework will provide — a program that provides stability and trains [gang members] in agriculture, in fishing, in port work. In addition, we need to provide sustainable sources of employment so that people don’t return to crime.
IC: What are the challenges facing this process?
J: The biggest challenge will be to sustain the truce because, in order to sustain it, [members of] both sides have to be engaged in sport and recreation, in using gang member’s talents so that they don’t think their only option is, ‘I have to kill this person, I have to collect money from them, or I have to rob them.’ There are some very good projects [aimed at the youth] in the works, but we have to think in the short, medium, and long term.
IC: What happened with the breakdown of the truce earlier this year?
J: That truce broke down because the government was facilitating it, and they went on vacation. With such a long time between meetings, people thought that the negotiations were over. Also, the aid the government had given only lasted until February. So things started to break down, and since [the government] didn’t have the legal framework to sit down with us, the process did not begin again until August.
The whole thing was about to collapse. The socio-legal roundtable is the first stage, but it is also a way of controlling [the gang members]: You keep them in line by telling them ‘no, you can’t do that, because look, we are already in discussions.’
IC: What is the relationship like between the Shottas and Espartanos?
J: There is a lot of talk about how this guy killed my brother and I have to get back at him, and this guy killed my friend who had nothing to do with anything. It is seen as a personal problem. We are trying to counteract that, to promote social work that brings everyone together to address this resentment.
IC: What kind of members enter this process?
J: A lot of former members of the FARC and the paramilitaries, as well as the Gaitanistas (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC, also known as the Gulf Clan). There are members who have been in both structures.
IC: Are there members of these groups that have decided not to take part in the process and go their own way?
J: Yes, especially the ones who don’t have arrest warrants aren’t considering participating. But they are a small part.
IC: Do you think it’s possible to have real peace?
J: It may be that we will have peace for a few years, but if the government is not present, the [violence] will resume. We know that for peace to hold, there must also be very strong laws. If there aren’t, nothing gets done. We hope that the government complies with the agreement and that this is not like the 12 or 16 past peace processes that have failed in Colombia.
So far, negotiations between the government and criminal groups in Buenaventura have succeeded in reducing the high levels of violence that plunged the port into a severe humanitarian crisis. Yet the socio-legal roundtable faces a number of serious difficulties. Chief among them is the Petro government’s inability to push a new law through Congress that permits formal negotiations with criminal organizations. The government lacks the support, and tensions around Total Peace are increasing.
Colombia is also experiencing its second consecutive year of record-breaking cocaine production, ramping up the desirability among criminal groups for control of Buenaventura and its port. There appear to be no imminent solutions to these issues.
As time passes, the ceasefire between the city’s gangs, already hanging by a thread, may fray further, plunging Total Peace into further jeopardy.
*This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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