Residents of Buenaventura, an important port city in western Colombia, have been caught in a crossfire between two warring criminal structures. But doubts remain as to whether this wave of violence is only due to a local rift or involves larger-scale players.
Since early 2021, a wave of violence in Buenaventura has led to a spike in homicides, displacements, disappearances and extortion while much of the local population has been confined to their homes. The Colombian Army has attributed all this to clashes between rival factions of La Local, a criminal group that controls much of the criminal economies in the city.
But La Local's ties to Los Urabeños, as well as the recent history of violence in Buenaventura, may point to a larger pattern.
In response to the wave of violence, the Interior Ministry announced a reward of approximately $57,000 for information leading to the arrests of Jorge Isaac Campaz, alias "Mapaya," Fidel Olaya Grueso, alias "Fidel," leaders of Los Espartanos, and Eloy Alberto Candelo Cuero, alias "Pepo," the leader of Los Shotas. Los Espartanos and Los Shotas are known as smaller groups within La Local.
But the Ombudsman’s Office warned in February that over 170,000 people are at risk from the violence and that at least that 400 residents have had to flee their homes in Buenaventura's neighborhoods of Pampalinda, San Luis and Bellavista.
And while many residents are allegedly not reporting acts of violence or missing persons to authorities for fear of retaliation, some Buenaventura residents have taken to the streets and social media using the hashtag #SOSBuenaventura, to call for an end to the violence.
InSight Crime Analysis
Violence in Buenaventura, as in much of Colombia, is cyclical, with new groups arising to contest one of the country's most lucrative criminal areas. This wave of killings is the latest chapter of decades of violence in the city.
Events in 2021 have been spurred by a leadership contest within La Local, a valuable position given the group's control over drug trafficking and contraband in the busy port.
In 2000, Bloque Calima, a paramilitary group belonging to the United Self Defense Forces (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC), took control of the port city. Bloque Calima demobilized in 2005 but some of its members joined La Empresa, a criminal gang that was then absorbed by Los Urabeños when they became the dominant criminal actor in Buenaventura.
In 2018, La Local splintered off from La Empresa, leading to a violent dispute with many parallels to that seen in 2021. La Empresa was significantly weakened and, at the time, there was already speculation that La Local had counted on external support.
And while control of any port is attractive to drug traffickers, Buenaventura is particularly attractive.
Located on the Naya River corridor and close to Cali, Buenaventura is an exit point for trafficking routes out of Colombia to Asia and the United States, as well as Central and South America.
Several criminal actors outside the city have a direct stake in its criminal dynamics. In early February, the Colombian Army alerted that Los Urabeños and several dissident fronts from the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) were present in the city, while the Ombudsman's Office highlighted the nearby presence of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). Authorities confirmed the presence of the ELN on the rural outskirts of Buenaventura in 2020.
A security analyst in Buenaventura, who spoke with InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity, due to security concerns, stated that he believed other actors are involved.
"It is very strange that a small gang like La Local can control the city by extorting businesses every day. That requires a machine to support it," he stated, adding that their arsenals provide further evidence.
"They do not carry cheap weapons used to rob people on the street. These are weapons of war," he explained.
And some suggested that efforts to dismantle La Local would not offer any long-term solution.
One human rights defender, who works with the internally displaced population in Buenaventura, told InSight Crime that arresting leaders of Los Espartanos and Los Shotas would do nothing as more armed structures would arise to take their place.
“La Local is just the tip of the iceberg of a narco-paramilitary structure in Buenaventura," concluded another human rights defender.