BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At night along the river banks of the Colombian port city of Buenaventura, residents say they can hear people scream and plea for mercy as they are cut up with chainsaws.
Gang members have been seen emerging from so-called “chop-up houses”, nestled in warrens of wooden shacks on stilts, carrying plastic bags with dismembered body parts that are thrown into the sea.
Fishermen say they have come across body parts floating in the waters of Colombia’s main port on the Pacific coast, an international shipping hub.
Buenaventura, home to 370,000 people, is a key smuggling point for cocaine being transported by sea and overland through Central America and Mexico en route to the United States, making it a hotspot for drug traffickers and criminal gangs and one of Colombia’s most violent cities.
The gangs fight over control of Buenaventura’s waterfront areas where the cocaine is stored and shipped from. This often puts communities in the middle of drug turf wars.
“The chop-up houses do exist even though the government finds it hard to accept that they do,” said a nun and women’s rights leader, who only gave her name as Zoila.
“Women in our support group have heard the screams at night. They fear that their sons, daughters and husbands who’ve disappeared have been dismembered. People are too afraid to act,” Zoila, who until recently lived in Buenaventura, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Over the past 18 months, the mutilated body parts of at least a dozen people have been found washed up along Buenaventura’s shores, according to Colombian human rights groups, the city’s bishop, Hector Epalza, and testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In an HRW report released on Thursday, the rights group said that when they visited Buenaventura in November 2013, they found a city that was wracked by ‘terror in no-man’s land’ and at the mercy of criminal gangs linked to former right-wing paramilitaries, who demobilised as part of a controversial peace process from 2003 onwards but then returned to crime.
“We found a city where entire neighbourhoods were dominated by powerful paramilitary successor groups - known as the Urabenos and the Empresa - who restrict residents’ movements, recruit their children, extort their businesses, and routinely engage in horrific acts of violence against anyone who defies their will,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s Americas director, told reporters in Bogota.
“These mafia are terrorising communities. The fact that people disappear and dismembered parts of bodies continue to appear on Buenaventura’s beaches shows that the horror has no limit,” he said.
The violence and fear have forced thousands of Buenaventura’s residents, like Zoila, to flee their homes. Some 50,687 people have been forcibly displaced in the past three years, according to official figures.
Until she left the city a month ago, Zoila led a group of 36 women whose relatives had disappeared. Every Wednesday for the past three years, they would protest outside Buenaventura’s town hall, holding photos of the missing and demand justice.
“A messenger sent by an armed group told me to stop the protests and leave the city. It’s not worth defying them. Any minimal opposition can get you killed. There’s no-one to protect you,” said Zoila, 54, who came to Bogota looking for refuge.
Buenaventura has reported the highest numbers of residents uprooted from their homes every year since 2011 and is home to the largest number of people registered missing in Colombia. At least 150 people disappeared in the city from 2010 to 2013, HRW says.
It also has one of the highest murder rates in South America - at nearly 50 murders per 100,000 people - compared with Colombia’s national average of 31 murders per 100,000 people.
“The situation in Buenaventura is among the very worst we’ve seen in many years of working in Colombia and the region. Buenaventura stands out because of the degree of cruelty and horror and the passivity of the authorities,” Vivanco said.
“What’s happening in Buenaventura today takes us back to the worst era of paramilitary violence in Colombia. I don’t know anywhere in Latin America and Colombia where people are living in such a situation,” he said.
YEARS OF CORRUPTION AND NEGLECT
The violence in Buenaventura is being fuelled by decades of neglect by state authorities, the fragile rule of law and corruption between the navy, police and criminal groups, HRW’s report said.
“Corruption is the norm in Buenaventura. Police need to have a permanent presence in the neighourhoods, who aren’t contaminated by the mafia,” said Vivanco.
Many residents have little faith in the police and judicial authorities punishing criminals.
“The women in my group have reported their relatives as missing to the police. But nothing has happened, even though a special prosecutor has been assigned to investigate. People mistrust the police. They feel there’s complicity between them and the armed groups,” said Zoila.
Last week, Buenaventura’s residents, of whom 80 percent live in poverty, made a stand. Shops and businesses closed for one day, and around 7,000 people took to the streets, holding posters saying: “We’re starting to defeat the indifference.”
In response to the latest violence in Buenaventura, Colombia’s police chief and government officials from Bogota have descended upon the city, pledging to beef up security and investment.
Colombia’s defence minister has said nearly 400 police have been deployed to the port and slum areas, 90 gang members arrested, and multi-million dollar social projects, including kindergartens and a sports complex, are planned.
“It’s not about sending in more troops to stand on street corners. That’s been done before. It doesn’t solve anything. What we want is justice, to know what happened to our disappeared, our murdered relatives and to stop the impunity,” Zoila said.