Eighteen days of public protests show another side to Buenaventura

I hear Miyela’s voice, broken, desperate, barely able to speak the words she recorded at 3:47 in the morning at her house: “What is happening to my people in Buenaventura?”, asks the voice that breaks down into tears that shatter my heart, “what is happening to us?”.  “Right now the army is being deployed, the police, the ESMAD (Anti Disturbances Squadron), highway police, soldiers are attacking the population, on the road, by air, there are so many helicopters!” she cries, deeply worried.

Miyela has lived through eighteen days of public protests which are being violently repressed, according to multiple statements from the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee. One of its members, Berenice Celeyta, said at a press conference yesterday “the excessive and abusive use of force against demonstrators by the Security Forces has left three hundred wounded, mostly because of the tear gas used by the 2,500 members of the Security Forces”.[1]

The Civic Strike Committee counts 300 people injured and affected by tear gas (20% of those affected are children, 167 are seriously injured, 10 injured by firearms).

“Their response was to go to war against the civilian population which has been organising itself and voicing its petitions at different meeting points”, Celeyta repeated. “They brought artillery and helicopters to fight against who?” In other words, why did they use such excessive violence?

For Danelly Estupiñán, also a member of the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee, the reason why is clear. Buenaventura is the most important port in Colombia and Latin America, and is connected to five hundred other ports around the world. It is a key part of the global economy. [2]  60% of Colombia’s foreign trade passes through it.

Around 12 million tons of cargo enters Buenaventura each year. Buenaventura has become one of Colombia’s largest ports, apparently in the name of progress, but meanwhile, 80% of the population lives in poverty.

Buenaventura is seeing projects aimed to put the port at the centre of neo-liberal development, like the “New Cities’ Programme”, the “Todos Somos Pazcifico” Development Plan, and “Buenaventura Vital 2050”.[3]  Currently, these projects include extending the port terminal, Aguadulce port, the Dagua River Delta maritime terminal, the Pacific Logistics Centre duty free zone and the Bahia de la Cruz Promenade”.[4]

The works to extend the port have created a territorial dispute in Buenaventura, Estupiñán reminds us.  These are lands regained from the sea, because Buenaventura used to be underwater and the afro-descendant population, for the most part, reclaimed the land from the sea by refilling it. They built homes that today are the setting for the world economy.

For Estupiñán, this is why the authorities used excessive force: to defend the neo-liberal projects at any cost.

There is another side to Buenaventura and it is the reason why people are protesting: it is poverty, inequality and violence.  The report Buenaventura: El despojo para la competitividad  by the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) explains how living conditions for the buenaventuran population have deteriorated as a consequence of the development founded on the port’s economic growth, modernisation and expansion:  confinement, exacerbated violence, degradation of the social fabric, progressive disappearance of a way of life, local systems of production and traditional means of subsistence in harmony with the water, as well as the constant anxiety of not knowing where the population will be relocated to or what it will live off, are just a few examples.[5]

The dynamics of the economy and the violence unleashed in the last 15 years by commercial interests and illegal armed groups is expanding to include businesses linked to the port, luxury tourism, organised crime, at the same time as the capital and the economy of the local population is being destroyed. The inevitable result is that the poor are getting poorer, inequality is increasing, local production capacity is being lost and informal business is growing. Buenaventura: a port without community, published by the National Centre for Historical Memory.

Most of the 500,000 inhabitants have no access to drinking water and there is no hospital in the city; those seeking medical attention must travel three hours by road to Cali.

Leaders have tried to negotiate with the Government about the proposals made by the city’s population to deal with the socio-economic problems, but so far with no success. Despite the violence inflicted by Security Forces, the leaders and a large part of the population continue to strike because it is the only way they can exert political pressure on the national government.[6]

The Committee is concerned for the leaders who report they are being stigmatised, and it explains that they are being blamed for the death of a policeman during the strike, and that members of SIJIN Police unit (Criminal Investigations Section) is infiltrating the Executive Committee’s meetings, taking photographs and taking notes of the list of attendees.[7]

The Victims Single Register counts 1,986 victims of homicide relating to the armed conflict between 1990 and 2013 (Victims Single Register, at 1 May 2014).

The Committee is urgently calling for safety guarantees for the leaders, because in Buenaventura other civic leaders are being killed and receiving death threats.   On 18 January this year, Emilsen Manyoma and her partner, two social leaders who were part of the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Zone organisational process, were murdered by a FARC dissident faction.  According to the Ombudsman Office, there is currently a reconfiguration of the illegal armed actors, and a strong presence of ‘La Empresa’ neo-paramilitary group, which is interested in controlling the territory and illegal markets in Buenaventura.[8]

Bianca Bauer


[1] Statement by Berenice Celeyta, Press Conference, 1 June 2017
[2] Statement by Danelly Estupiñan, Press Conference, 1 June 2017
[3] Cien Días: Buenaventura como escenario para el posacuerdo, 1 June 2017
[4] Cien Días: Buenaventura como escenario para el posacuerdo, 1 June 2017
[5] Cijp and Mundubad : Buenaventura: El despojo para la competitividad, May 2015
[6] Danelly Estupiñán, Press Conference, 1 June 2017
[7] Statement by the Committee, Press Conference, 1 June 2017
[8] Defensoria del Pueblo, Report, 30 March 2017

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