Long overdue, the coverage coming out of Colombia’s Pacific port of Buenaventura has left me feeling philosophical. I first visited this impoverished city in 2003 and then again in 2007. I promised myself I would never return.
Writing in 2007 for the online site Suite101, I found myself suffering from a barrage of troll-like criticisms for my descriptions of Buenaventura. I was accused of never having visited the city, threatened should I return and frankly exposed to the kind of vernacular that one always fears as a journalist since it hits quite close to home when my only wish was to inform.
Since 2007 the site has taken down the vitriolic responses to my article, but this has not meant that I have forgotten the realities. For longer than a year the comments kept coming in. Rather than cherish this vindication for the piece written all those years ago now that we are receiving a long overdue focus on this city strafed by warring gangs, mafias and political indifference, it is now time to ensure that Buenaventura does not once again fall by the wayside regarding the news agenda. Even the BBC ran a piece on Buenaventura.
Back in 2007 I flew in to Buenaventura via Satena and then asked my taxi driver to take me to an inexpensive yet safe hotel. Calle 1 was the destination, about the only reasonable part of the city to visit since it was the only area equipped for tourists and where one could be offered reasonable security. While shooting some photos of the Muelle Turistico and the tankers coming in through the waters of the pacific and the River Dagua, I was waved away by some youths selling drugs openly. I then had to prove to them that I had erased any incriminating images.
This is a city where, apparently, families leave their doors open at night to provide safe passage for gangs needing secure corridors of escape. Who controls Buenaventura? Asking this of a taxi driver, the answer was that each district had different overlords ranging from the FARC, ELN, Bacrims and others. There was a distinct feeling of aggression towards me as a visitor asking questions.
How desperate must the inhabitants of Buenaventura be to have organized a complete shutdown of all businesses and march to protest their precarious living conditions? Insight Crime and Human Rights Watch have written articles and damning reports detailing chilling issues such as “chop houses” where enemies and opponents are dismembered alive by gangs. It appears that even the most humble here are being extorted, even the lady selling chontaduro fruits on the street has to pay a protection fee.
So, what next for Buenaventura? I really have no answer to this. Buenaventura is geographically difficult, frequently cut off by land from Cali due to landslides on the highway. Nearby there are mines and excavations, both legal and illegal for precious metals and minerals and then of course, the port itself – one of the Pacific’s important deep water ports – is key on one side for the exportation of all of Colombia’s products and then serves as the main location for the importation of arms and so on for warring gangs. Buenaventura could represent the image of Colombia’s failure to act and protect an overwhelmingly afro population and provide them with state presence.
This is not a problem of “orden social” as they like to say here in Colombia. This needs to be corrected by social works, education, health, increased employment opportunities and security.