CRF Blog

The Forgotten Streets

by Bill Hayes

In The Forgotten Streets for Foreign Policy magazine, Scott C. Johnson reports on Buenaventura, the city created by Columbia’s guerrilla war.

Buenaventura is often described as Colombia’s most violent city. Its homicide rate is 56 percent higher than the national average, and nine times that of New York City. An expansive port system has turned the city into the gateway for roughly 60 percent of Colombia’s imports and exports, but very little of the profits have trickled down to residents. In 2013, some 15 million tons of legal goods, along with untold quantities of illicit drugs and weapons, passed through Buenaventura. The mix of high-end development prospects, a strategic international port with easy access to Asia, Europe, and North America, and the city’s poverty — roughly 80 percent of the population is considered poor—has helped make Buenaventura a battleground for all sorts of competing interests, legitimate and criminal alike. Often called bacrim, for bandas criminales (criminal bands), … [groups] fight each other over drug-trafficking routes, but also for control of valuable waterfront property, which large companies are, in turn, eyeing for high-end development.

For decades, the Colombian government paid scant attention to the stretch of Pacific coastline where Buenaventura sits. With the exception of the port, the state largely abandoned these areas, leaving Buenaventura and its residents — mostly Afro-Colombian descendants of slaves — isolated and impoverished. Geographically separated from the rest of Colombia by the Andes Mountains, the city is a signature of government indifference and continues to lack the necessary infrastructure that could connect Buenaventura with the rest of the country.

In 2012, Colombia joined the Pacific Alliance, a trading bloc that includes Mexico, Peru, and Chile, whose principle aim is to aggressively pursue economic ties with Asia, in particular China. But when government officials presented Buenaventura as a location for a Pacific Alliance summit the following year — a Pacific gateway to South America, the city had the region’s largest port and could establish Colombia as a key player in the Pacific Alliance, the thinking went — the idea was shot down because the city was far too dangerous. The summit was ultimately held hundreds of miles away on the Caribbean, serving as a wake-up call for those intent on moving the country into the next century. Since then, President Juan Manuel Santos has worked with city officials to improve Buenaventura’s image by developing an aggressive plan to promote tourism and downtown development that includes a multimillion-dollar waterfront esplanade and luxury hotels. But the state of affairs in this city have made such an about-face nearly impossible.

Colombia faces serious obstacles as it struggles to put 50 years of conflict behind it, and economic renewal is just part of Santos’s plan to emerge intact from the guerrilla war that has pitted successive administrations against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym of FARC). Peace talks, which began in October 2012 and now continue in Havana, Cuba, could potentially put an end to Latin America’s longest-running conflict. But the problem is that, while the government is making progress on negotiations with the FARC, there are consequences of the war — seen most extremely in Buenaventura — that aren’t likely to be healed by the peace process. Years of fighting, combined with a largely absentee government, have turned Buenaventura into a kind of feral place in which … members of the bacrim — descendants of paramilitary groups that once fought the FARC — operate with impunity.

Unless Santos’s government can deliver, quickly, on promises to tend to the consequences wrought by years of neglect, Buenaventura is only likely to become more violent, with or without a national peace agreement. And that could be disastrous for Colombia’s long-term vision for its future. [more]