From a safe distance, Isla Calavera (Skull Island) looked tranquil on that sunny August morning. Located one kilometer from the downtown of the port city of Buenaventura, Isla Calavera—officially named “Isla Pájaros” (Bird Island) due to its diversity of birds—seems like a peaceful place, surrounded by the rolling waves of the San Antonio Estuary. However, while we waited for the Search Unit for Disappeared People (UBPD) to arrive in the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, J, one of the spaces founding leaders, reminisced and he reminded us why people from the neighborhood call it “Skull Island.” For decades, of the thousands of disappeared people from Buenaventura, many bodies were dumped in its waters, the families continue to look for them today.
J told us how violence persists in Buenaventura, about the inter-urban displacement and the cases of enforced disappearance that have transformed several parts of the city into clandestine mass graves, including the San Antonio Estuary, known to be one of the port city’s “water graves,” as it was used by armed groups to disappear victims. He also talked about the perseverance of the communities and organizations of victims of enforced disappearance who have resisted the violence alongside human rights organizations like the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation (FNEB) and the Inter-church Commission de Justice and Peace (JyP) who, together with others, in December 2021 achieved the implementation of precautionary measures for the San Antonio Estuary. In addition to disappeared people, the estuary is also home to business projects that seek to expand the Buenaventura port. The precautionary measures granted by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), prohibit any intervention in the estuary, in particular dredging and civil works as these represent the serious risk of causing irreparable damages in the locations where the disappeared bodies lie. Even though the measures where renewed this past September time is ticking. Victims continue to wait for answers on the resting places of their loved ones and major political pressure continues to push to reinitiate the dredging projects.