Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City
BUENAVENTURA, Colombia, May 15 — Visitors to this city can be forgiven for thinking no place is safe here. Gunfire often echoes through the slums surrounding its port, the country’s most important on the Pacific coast. As larger cities have calmed, Buenaventura has emerged as the deadliest urban center in Colombia’s long internal war.
Soldiers search almost every car at checkpoints on the winding road from Cali. Guerrillas recently fired mortar shells at the police headquarters. The stately Hotel Estación, a neo-Classical gem built in 1928, where executives come to hammer out deals to import cars or export coffee, is guarded by dozens of soldiers in combat fatigues.
“It’s as if we have a little Haiti within Colombia,” said Lt. Nikolai Viviescas, 25, a police officer who was transferred from Bogotá six months ago. “It feels like another country.”
Although Bogotá, the capital, and other cities have become secure and prosperous enough that it is possible there to forget about this country’s four-decade-old civil conflict for a while, Buenaventura is a different story.
Killings in this city of about 300,000 climbed 30 percent last year, to 408, giving Buenaventura the nation’s highest homicide rate at 144 per 100,000, more than seven times the rate in Bogotá and four times that of Medellín. And this year, the police say, 222 people have been killed here.
A vast majority of the killings are the product of a narrow territorial conflict over control of the edge of the city’s slums, acres of wooden shacks built on stilts over the sea. From these makeshift wharves, police and naval officials say, fast boats depart with cocaine for points north. Buenaventura’s geography, crucial in connecting Colombia to the global flow of trade, also holds strategic cachet for drug traffickers.
Despite receiving more than $5 billion in antinarcotics and counterinsurgency aid from the United States this decade, making the country the largest recipient of American aid in the hemisphere, Colombia remains the world’s largest cocaine producer and the supplier of 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States.
Drug lords, rebels and resurgent paramilitary gangs all draw on Buenaventura’s slum dwellers as their foot soldiers.
The police say that many of the combatants on the rebels’ side belong to the Manuel Cepeda Vargas Urban Front, a cell of the main rebel group FARC that is based in Cali and opposes the Autodefensas Campesinas del Pacífico, composed mostly of former paramilitary fighters.
“Nothing in this fight is about ideology,” said Antero Viveros, the head of a community group in Lleras, a large slum controlled by the guerrillas. “It is about drugs, with members of one ethnicity killing each other.”
Despite its emergence as Colombia’s most dangerous city, people displaced by fighting in the countryside still see Buenaventura as a refuge. About 42,000 refugees have arrived here since 1998, mostly Afro-Colombians from rural areas, according to the federal government. They swell the ranks of what may be Colombia’s poorest slums.
“If you’re hungry, you’ll do whatever imaginable to survive,” said Fernando Nuñez, 29, a Lleras resident who ekes out a living repairing old cellphones.
President Álvaro Uribe has forcefully criticized the violence here and sent new police and navy commanders to the city at the start of the year. About 2,000 soldiers and police officers, who also wear combat uniforms and carry semiautomatic weapons, patrol Buenaventura.
Still, critics say authorities have long neglected Buenaventura’s problems in part because Afro-Colombians receive scant federal attention. Nongovernmental groups say Afro-Colombians account for up to a quarter of the country’s population of 44 million, by some measures giving Colombia the largest black population in the Spanish-speaking world. And more than 80 percent of Buenaventura’s residents are black.
This month, when the president chose Paula Marcela Moreno Zapata as culture minister, was the first time an Afro-Colombian ascended to a cabinet position in the country’s history. Yet political analysts and black advocacy groups said the appointment was largely to appease Democrats in Washington who complain of racial exclusion in Colombia as they weigh a trade agreement.
“The war in Buenaventura is not going to be ended by symbolic actions from Bogotá,” said Rosaliano Riascos, a Buenaventura native who fled the city after a wave of paramilitary-led killings several years ago. Mr. Riascos, who heads an independent black advocacy group in Bogotá, said it had been a year since he returned to Buenaventura to visit family. “Buenaventura is a no-man’s land,” he said.
The entrance to Lleras looks like that of any shantytown elsewhere in Colombia, with cinder-block shacks and a few paved streets. But deeper into the slum, the structures are made from discarded wood, with newcomers squeezing into lean-tos alongside older houses. Rusted barrels collect rain from zinc roofs, the only source of fresh water.
Sewage bubbles down trash-strewn dirt roads before flowing into the sea. Stereos blare vallenato and reggaetón music. And precariously built homes are hoisted above the water on spindly pieces of wood.
Many of the residents of these hovels hesitate to offer their names out of fear of retaliation over what they might say. One middle-aged man, offering a visitor a cup of rum from the steps of his house, said he had worked as a stevedore at the port years ago before losing that job. “Now,” he said, “I do nothing.”
Some economists hold up Buenaventura as an example of the risks of exposing certain areas of developing economies to market forces. María del Pilar Castillo, an economist at Valle University in Cali, said many residents lost economic security when the city’s port was privatized more than a decade ago, cutting its work force and reducing benefits.
With taxes on the imports flowing through Buenaventura’s port largely going directly to the central government, the city reaps few benefits from international trade, even as Colombia’s economy grows more than 6 percent a year. So the poor in Buenaventura, with an unemployment rate of about 28 percent, resort to the drug trade.
“There is no other viable industry here, so there are no other viable jobs,” said Ana María Mercedes Cano, director of Buenaventura’s Chamber of Commerce. “So we live in a situation with violence all around us.”
Civilians are increasingly caught in the cross-fire. Guerrillas were blamed for an attack earlier this year in which five people, including one police officer, were killed when a homemade mortar shell was fired at a police truck. Security officials here say laws that are lax on minors, who carry out many of the attacks, make it difficult to reduce the killings.
“We have a justice system designed for Switzerland, yet we have no Swiss here,” said Col. Yamil Moreno, the chief of police in Buenaventura. In the same breath, Colonel Moreno, who was transferred here from the north, callously described Buenaventura’s dying combatants.
“These vagabonds,” he said, “are good only for drinking, dancing and killing