Buenaventura: a town that won’t give up

The people of Buenaventura have been experiencing an escalation of the conflict since 2020. Today, all eyes are on the port city, because since last December 30, the lives of 170,500 people are at risk due to clashes between “Los Shotas” and “Los Espartanos”, two factions of “La Local”, a group inherited from paramilitarism. So far in 2021, according to the Pacific Regional Ombudsman’s Office, due to more than 38 confrontations that have taken place in the urban area of Buenaventura in January, 907 families – around 2186 people – have had to be forcibly displaced from their neighborhoods and 22 people have been killed, mostly young people between 16 and 35 years old who have refused to be recruited by these groups.

Amidst the crossfire, the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, in the La Playita neighborhood of Buenaventura, resists. Its main street is named after the Naya’s municipal capital: San Francisco, patron saint of the Nayeros, since 90% of the population that lives there comes from the Naya River. In search of better living conditions, in the 1970s, many of the Afro-Colombian rural population of Naya migrated to Buenaventura and began to settle in this neighborhood by the sea. Beginning in the 2000s, more inhabitants of Naya arrived, displaced by the violence exercised by the Calima Block of the AUC paramilitary group.

San Francisco Street, like other streets in the La Playita neighborhood, became famous for the chilling torture practices of the ‘casas de pique’: rudimentary cabins built over the water where paramilitary structures dismembered and mutilated civilians, often with the sole intention of sending messages of terror to the community. In February, Monsignor Rubén Darío Jaramillo, Bishop of Buenaventura, indicated that this practice is once again operating in the city. On April 13, 2014, the community created the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space with the aim of expelling and preventing the entry of illegal armed actors.

2014: The first urban humanitarian space in the world

Today, the Humanitarian Space has Precautionary Measures from the IACHR and two control points requested by the community, where Colombian police are permanently present in order to guarantee the security of the population. Since January 2021, CIJP has denounced that the inhabitants of the Humanitarian Space have experienced an increase in intimidation, threatening messages, extortion, incursions by illegal armed actors and attempts of forced recruitment.

Orlando Castillo, leader of the Humanitarian Space community and member of the Naya Community Council, is an extremely attentive, kind and humble person who never stops working for his community. The recognized leader has the backing of the people who live in the Humanitarian Space and the support of several Colombian human rights organizations, such as CIJP, as well as that of the international community. Despite all this support, Orlando has suffered several attacks, an assasination attempt and threats throughout his career as a defender of peace in this territory.

These threats are in addition to follow-ups, false accusations and accusations that have affected other leaders of the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, who since April 2014 have developed a peace and self-protection proposal to confront paramilitary actions and violence.

At the beginning of 2021, due to the increase in violence, the community of the Puente Nayero has decided to install a series of security cameras as a prevention and protection mechanism. The images will be monitored from Bogota and are intended to combat the control exercised by paramilitaries who have entered the Humanitarian Space several times so far in 2021, threatening those who want to live in peace and dignity.

The territorial disputes that plunge Buenaventura into violence are not only a consequence of the actions of illegal armed actors. It should not be forgotten that in the port of Buenaventura – through which 60% of the merchandise enters and leaves Colombia – there are great economic interests, both from the private and public sectors, to carry out port expansions that have generated urban displacements, forced disappearances and threats to those who defend their territory or represent victims.

One of the projects that began in 2019 is the dredging of the San Antonio estuary. This work – financed with public and private money – aims to achieve a greater depth of the waters of the Bay of Buenaventura to enable the entry of larger ships. The problem is that the San Antonio estuary is one of the largest mass graves in Colombia and relatives of victims of the armed conflict are still searching for the disappeared.

During the most bloody years of the armed conflict in Buenaventura, especially from the 2000s onwards, the San Antonio estuary became a mass grave where bodies of people who disappeared at the hands of paramilitary groups were constantly found. It is believed that in the water graves, “aquafosas” as they are known by the community, there are around 1,000 missing persons.

Numerous social organizations, including PBI acompanied CIJP, Nomadesc and the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation (FNEB), have opposed the dredging project in the San Antonio estuary so that the Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons (UBPD) can search for the thousands of missing persons in this water system. At the end of 2020, organisations requested that the JEP grant provisional precautionary measures so that dredging would not continue until a search plan for the missing persons has been established.

Just 20 minutes away from the San Antonio estuary water ponds is the neighborhood of Punta del Este, in Commune 5 of Buenaventura. On April 19, 2005, paramilitaries from the Calima Block of the AUC deceived 11 young people – between 18 and 21 years of age – telling them that they were going to play a soccer game in the town of Dagua, department of Valle, with the promise to pay them the sum of two hundred thousand pesos. The young men were taken one by one from the Punta del Este neighborhood. On the outskirts of the city, the vehicle was diverted from its route towards the San Antonio – Bodegas de Cilano estuary. The 11 youths were forced to get out of the vehicle, tortured and later killed. The lifeless bodies of the 11 youths were found days later together with another one, still unidentified. CIJP continues to work with the mothers from Punta del Este, so that the Truth Commission hears their testimony and their proposal for collective reparation measures.

Faced with the serious situation of violence that has generated fear and massive displacement of the civilian population, initiatives and articulations have emerged such as the “Buenaventura S.O.S.” movement, which aims to make these complaints visible and to stop the violence.

On February 10, a human chain for dignity was organized in Buenaventura. Thousands of Buenaventura residents dressed in white and formed a 22 km long chain along the main road of the port city. Protests against the grave situation in Buenaventura and for the dignity of the black people have continued throughout this week.

On February 11, 2021, to the cry of “the people do not give up, dammit”, “no more violence” and “the anti-racist struggle has come to Latin America”, members of social collectives, students, community leaders and, above all, Afro-Colombian youth, participated in a march in Cali, thus joining the wave of protests that are being organized in Buenaventura, especially the youth. They are not giving up and will continue to protest peacefully until the violence stops.

Valentina Carvajal

Continue reading about Buenaventura:


Eighteen days of public protests show another side to Buenaventura

2017: Buenaventura’s Civic Strike

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