Colombian Town Gripped By Gang Terror
Long impoverished and neglected, the port city of Buenaventura on Colombia’s Pacific coast must now contend with the daily terror of a merciless and escalating war between rival drug cartels.
By mid-afternoon each day, shops lower their shutters, and the streets empty as residents scramble for safety before nightfall.
Those who can lock themselves behind iron gates. Others take refuge in shacks of stilts or tin huts in stagnant water and dirt along bare, potholed roads.
“We are witnessing a new urban and regional war in Buenaventura,” Juan Manuel Torres of Colombia’s Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation told AFP.
“The situation has become very violent and out of control,” he said, as the “Shots” and “Spartanos” gangs battle for dominance in the predominantly Afro-Colombian community.
With a population of about 400,000, Buenaventura saw 576 homicides in the five years from 2017 to 2021 — one of the highest homicide rates for a city in one of the world’s most violent countries.
Last year, the city recorded 50 “enforced disappearances” in a vicious campaign of gang-led intimidation and extortion.
When AFP visited, the fear was palpable as police patrolled vigilantly, their guns drawn and pointed at the ramshackle buildings lining the plastic-covered streets.
At night, a Shravana comes under escort to pick up a dead body and leave it in the open.
In Buenaventura’s seedy John XXIII district, violence is reported almost daily.
It was here that gangs armed with automatic weapons clashed for hours on August 30 in what the media called a “night of terror”.
“The parish authorities are shotas and spartanos,” said Buenaventura Bishop Ruben Dario Jaramillo.
“They are stronger than the government; residents have no choice but to submit,” he told AFP.
According to Torres, what is happening in Buenaventura indicates a “total failure of the state”.
This has allowed gangs, he said, to “coopt the population, enlist children without a future” in a city where 43 percent of the population is destitute and one in three unemployed.
Neighborhood activist Wilmer Valencia Orozco said people are too afraid to leave their homes — even their immediate neighborhoods.
The most dangerous parts are the “invisible borders” between areas controlled by one group or the other.
“Young people with no history (with gangs) are kidnapped and killed because they live in a certain neighborhood,” Orozco said.
Shottas and Spartanos arrived in the late 2020s after a predecessor cartel called “La Locale” split in two.
Both have ties to armed groups that fight to control illegal mining, drug crops and smuggling routes in Colombia’s vast jungles.
“The backbone of their (gangs’) business is drug trafficking. Then micro-trafficking, extortion… and now the legal trade,” said Jaramillo, the priest.
According to Torres, gangs have recently taken over Buenaventura’s food trade: “eggs, cheese, fruit…no staple escapes their hands,” he said.
A doctor, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, pointed to several empty shops.
“Many traders had to close. If you don’t pay, they kill you,” he explained.
“In Buenaventura, gangs are the law!”
A shop owner said he had to raise prices as the goons demanded more protection money.
A taxi driver said, “There are two taxes, the official one and the street one. And the second one, we really feel it!”
Authorities say Shotas and Spartanos each have between 400 and 600 members, with as many as 1,000 in prison.
One of their main points of contention is the waterway that crosses the city and provides access to easy drug traffic in Buenaventura Bay, said military official Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Aguilar.
Soldiers and police deployed in the city face an uphill battle.
“Both gangs have huge logistics and lots of little hands, ‘flies,'” said Aguilar of the children who act as distractions and distractions for the gangsters.
“We cannot be everywhere together,” the official added.
Colombia’s first leftist president, Gustavo Petro, expressed concern about the “serious situation of violence” in Buenaventura, which he blamed on decades of state neglect.
Petro visited the city this month as part of his “Total Peace” drive, which includes offering gang members the option of jail time if they turn themselves in.
Both parties indicated they were willing to negotiate, the president later announced.
“It’s a chance for them not to die or go to prison,” Torres said of the possibility of surrender.
Orozco, the activist, added: “They are tired of killing each other and hiding. They just want to be able to enjoy their money.”