Colombia’s largest port city, Buenaventura, saw a 200 percent increase in homicides in January, compared to the same time period last year. The killings are attributed to deep-rooted problems: state abandonment, systemic racism, and a lack of concerted investments in Afro-Colombian communities.
These conditions have allowed illegal armed groups—who seek to control the Afro-Colombian civilian population—to violently dispute territorial control in efforts to advance illegal economies. These conditions work to serve powerful political and economic interests. While the state heavily militarized Buenaventura, this violence continues to take place due to corruption within the public forces, and among other local actors. Armed groups terrorize communities, many made of displaced persons from surrounding rural areas, by recruiting children, extorting local businesses and informal workers, and threatening or killing those who don’t follow strict curfews or “turf borders” (líneas invisibles). Recently, at least 400 people became internally displaced due to a lack of effective response by the national government to protect them.
Residents in the Buenaventura neighborhoods severely impacted by the armed groups’ horrific violence and restrictions are speaking out. Protests have taken place in the port city and in nearby Cali, with more planned in the coming weeks. The Colombian state has neglected to bring basic services—drinkable water, reliable electricity, adequate housing, health care, and schools—to Buenaventura. This neglect has long driven citizen responses: in 2017, a general strike paralysed all activity in the port for nearly a month, amidst a brutal deployment of the ESMAD (anti-riot police) to forcibly repress the peaceful protests. During that civic strike, all sectors of civil society demanded that the national government care as much about the Afro-Colombian citizens of Buenaventura as it does for the economic benefits that port brings to the country’s commerce. Shortly after the strike, there was movement in implementing the agreements with the Civic Strike Committee (the civil society body representing protestors’ demands), but this slowed after the Iván Duque administration took power.
Local authorities in Colombia must respect the right to peaceful protest, as communities continue to take to the streets to call attention to Buenaventura’s crisis of violence and poverty. Recent history shows that sending in the military to patrol the streets is not a sustainable, long-term solution for Buenaventura. What’s needed is a deeper reckoning with the wealth, housing, security, and many other disparities that affect Afro-Colombian livelihoods.
President Iván Duque’s administration and future administrations need to prioritize investing in Buenaventura’s future in a way that is equitable and just. The government neglect, poor living conditions, and insecurity that affect Buenaventura are a longstanding expression of the structural racism that persists in Colombia.
U.S. policymakers have a role to play as well. The 2012 U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) helped drive massive construction projects to Buenaventura, but this has not benefited the city’s Afro-Colombians who continue living in extreme poverty. The U.S-Colombia Labor Action Plan, put in place to advance the FTA, includes ports as a priority sector whereby both countries agreed to improve labor rights and strengthen trade unions. In Buenaventura, the initial steps to improve port workers’ rights were quickly forgotten once the FTA came into fruition. The U.S. government should advocate for upholding port workers’ labor rights as committed in the FTA labor action plan. Additionally, to better protect Black and Indigenous lives in Colombia, the U.S. government should push Colombia to fully implement its 2016 peace accord, which contains commitments meant to address the country’s ethnic minorities that are entrenched in inequality and inequity.
In Buenaventura, “the people know how they deserve to be treated as a people, they know what their collective dreams are, and they are working towards a collective and dignified life project,” said Danelly Estupiñán, a social leader with the Black Communities Process (PCN) who documents violence in the city and advocates for the rights of Afro-Colombian communities. Across Colombia, social leaders like Danelly are fighting for transformative change in Buenaventura and beyond.
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