Elections and Peace Talks Won’t Stem Colombia’s Violence

The presidential run-off this weekend and talks with the FARC are obscuring horrific violence in places like Buenaventura—and US multinationals are deeply implicated.

Police in the San Jose neighborhood of Buenaventura have long been accused by locals of collusion with right wing death squads. (All photographs by Michael Norby and Brian Fitzpatrick)

At his residence in the Colombian port of Buenaventura, Monsignor Héctor Epalza Quintero portrays in chilling detail the destruction of his city. He speaks softly and never breaks eye contact; it’s as if he is studying the reaction, making sure the level of depravity he describes is sinking in.

That morning he had heard from a woman whose son had disappeared. She found someone from the group presumed responsible and was brought to a house where, she hoped, her boy might be held. When she walked inside, a grisly scene greeted her and a warning halted her most basic human reaction.

“She was about to scream,” says the bishop, shaking his head. “She was told to be silent, just to look and see if her son was there and if not, just leave.” Inside the room about fifteen bodies lay scattered around—the corpses of some of Buenaventura’s missing, ready to be discarded.

“That’s how horrible the situation is,” he says.

Life in Buenaventura, which is on the Pacific Coast just northwest of Cali, has long been cruel; an 80 percent poverty rate and the violence of the Colombian civil war have made for a bitter struggle for the 370,000 mostly Afro-Colombians within the city limits. But since a ferocious turf war erupted between armed gangs Los Urabeños and La Empresa in October 2012, residents have seen a cycle of savagery unique even by the standards of the country’s fifty-year conflict.

On June 15, Colombians will go to the polls to elect their president, with peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leading the agenda. In a dirty, close-run contest, President Juan Manuel Santos and his challenger, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, have clashed over the negotiations Santos initiated with the FARC in 2012. Zuluaga is strongly backed by former President Álvaro Uribe—who with virtually limitless US backing through Plan Colombia almost obliterated FARC between 2002 and 2010—and it is accepted that were Zuluaga to take office, strict concessions he would demand of the rebels would place the talks in serious jeopardy.

But though all focus is on the upcoming run-off and its impact on the talks, in Buenaventura a conflict far removed from the bickering of the campaign trail rages on. From this city, huge amounts of the country’s cocaine leaves for foreign shores and for the past two years, this strategic port has been up for grabs. It’s a city already littered with mass graves, and disappearances and live dismemberments are now a regular occurrence. And two US Congressmen, Representatives Jim McGovern and George Miller, point to disturbing evidence of collusion between US and other multinationals and the death squads that are responsible.

Asked to put aside his role as a spiritual leader and describe the personal impact this has had on him, the bishop seems stunned. His lips quiver, his eyes well up and for a few wordless minutes he sobs uncontrollably. His lead role in local peace marches—one a few months ago attracted 30,000 people—has seen him come under intense pressure, and it shows.

“I dreamed that I was killed, that they were killing me,” he says, regaining his composure. “This has affected me deeply. I’m becoming a target and a focus; everything is on me. I have been advised not to move around too much.”

Living conditions in Buenaventura are horrific, with 80 percent of residents living in dire poverty.

We leave at dusk, the armed guards patrolling the grounds outside Monsignor Epalza’s home supporting his claim that not even he is safe. As the seaside barrios nearby grow dark, the silence of those huddled within them is telling. At night, they hide indoors.

Almost two decades after right-wing paramilitaries from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) brought chainsaw terror to the country, Buenaventura residents are now reliving the nightmare. Locals say the murders can average one a night.

Even young children are dismembered, brought to so-called casas de pique, or chop-up houses, tied to tables and set upon with cutting tools. The screams are all that are needed to terrorize people. As it was in the days of the infamous AUC leader Carlos Castaño, it’s a system of complete control—invisible borders between neighborhoods are watched constantly; the price for crossing them is execution.

“It is terrifying to hear that,” says one leader from the barrio of La Inmaculada, rubbing the goose bumps from her arm. “It’s like something from a horror movie. When they cover their mouths you can hear the muffled screams and you can hear the noises of the cutting.”

One of the warring groups, Los Urabeños, is a direct descendent of Castaño’s AUC, which officially disbanded between 2003 and 2006 during Uribe’s presidency. Named after their roots in the paramilitary heartland of Urabá, they have been misleadingly titled Bandas Criminales (Bacrim) by the government. Their rivals La Empresa (the Company) are a local criminal group with ties to another neo-paramilitary outfit, Los Rastrojos. The tactics used by all groups, however, are straight from the AUC playbook.

Locals here are too frightened to offer their names, and their stories show why. One group cut up an 11-year-old child recently, they tell us. The next day, a paramilitary walked around the neighborhood holding the boy’s severed hands aloft, as residents looked on open-mouthed. A husband and wife from Barrio La Playita were abducted the week before. Her head was found on the street days later, but her partner’s remains had not shown up yet. Sometimes it takes weeks. On the seashore most houses sit on stilts, and decomposed limbs and torsos wash ashore regularly.

The police have long been accused of working in concert with the groups. It’s a well-oiled system from the top down, residents say, telling us of people calling the police but later getting calls from paramilitaries who have been tipped off by the same officers.

“You have to stay with that pain in your soul and your heart,” one leader says. “You cannot say anything because the authorities will compromise you. You have to keep quiet.”

When a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) shed light on the horrors of Buenaventura, the authorities were jolted into action, and four chop-up houses were subsequently found using special lighting to illuminate blood residue on the walls and floors. Seven hundred troops were sent in, but for locals this is seen as a meaningless gesture spurred by the brief spotlight from HRW.

Just a few days before the intervention, Buenaventura’s police commander, Lt. Col. José Miguel Correa, cut an evasive figure. “The dismemberments are terrorizing people,” he said. “Our mission is to bring security.” When pushed to answer reports of collusion, he gave a short response and soon left. “We are independent. We don’t collaborate, we don’t act, and we don’t support any of those groups. We attack every single group, be they guerrillas or criminal groups or paramilitaries.”

*  *  *

The prevailing narrative—that a bloody battle for control of drug routes is under way—is undeniable. But community leaders say that something else is driving such horrific levels of violence—something all too familiar throughout the history of Colombia.

While the port is a huge jumping-off point for drugs, it also handles 70 percent of the country’s imports and exports; it is the most important port in one of the most resource-rich lands in world.

Since the 2011 signing of the US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA) and subsequent “free trade” deals with the European Union, Canada and Colombia’s Latin American neighbors, Buenaventura has been earmarked for significant development to accommodate the increase in commerce. According to Colombia’s Central Bank, foreign direct investment reached a record high of $16.7 billion in 2013, an increase of 8 percent from the year before.

To allow for a massive port expansion and a tourism project called El Malecon, surrounding neighborhoods have been scheduled for demolition. A settlement to rehouse the families has been built about eight miles inland in a place called San Antonio, but a lack of schools and infrastructure, as well as its distance from the sea they rely on for a living, has seen people resist. “These territories are our life,” says a leader from La Playita. “It is our blood. We cannot live without blood and we cannot live without our territories.”

The spiritual connection that Afro-descendents have to their homeland is unique; when they are born, they say around here, their umbilical cords are buried in the soil. This might be unimportant to the powerful, but it drives their resistance. “They know that people are not going to give up,” says one man. “That’s why they are using such horrible violence against us. It’s much easier to finance war than negotiate.”

But construction dates for the port expansion are fast approaching, and to prod the people who have stubbornly refused to move, intimidation tactics have been ramped up. Walking through the rickety neighborhoods of San José, Muro Yusti, Nayita, La Playita and La Inmaculada, the fear is apparent. Dotted among the locals are paramilitaries, watching every move. One man’s outstretched hand points toward us, pulling an imaginary trigger as we walk past. A car zooms by; its driver leans out the window and accuses our translator of being a FARC guerrilla (FARC is the historic enemy of right-wing death squads like the AUC).

Police patrolling in the San Jose neighborhood of Buenaventura.

Yet the ferocity of the violence in Buenaventura clearly does not follow the classic Colombian pattern of left versus right; it revolves around an extortion bonanza linked to the enormous surge in foreign capital. The egg sellers on the street are taxed as aggressively as big business; the latest move has even seen paramilitaries commence door-to-door collections.

FARC, the country’s largest left-wing guerrilla outfit, has long worked with the armed groups here and in other areas, happy to trade control of the city in exchange for unmolested use of the port. Their “people’s army” moniker doesn’t hold water here; it’s seen as a cruel nom de guerre used at press conferences in Havana, where negotiations with the government continue.

On our return visits since October 2012, locals have alleged that the butchery here is committed by paramilitaries, facilitated by the state and fueled by the dollars of foreign governments and multinational corporations. “They are paying for this to happen,” says a woman from La Inmaculada. “All of these countries making investments are as responsible for what is happening to us as the Colombian government is. They’re as sinister as the groups that are committing these crimes.”

While Buenaventura is especially violent, a campaign of terror is continuing throughout Colombia. It’s the final phase, some argue, in a decades-long land grab. Apart from pacified commercial hubs like Bogotá and Medellín, and tourist traps like Cartagena, the war for the country’s resources rages on.

These rural communities, settled for hundreds of years on top of gold, coal, oil, emeralds and land ideal for palm oil and all types of fruit, are under constant pressure. Many have been displaced by large economic interests, which have overrun entire communities.

In the Cauca department, south of Buenaventura, we visited paramilitary and FARC-controlled gold mines—huge, open pits in the land where small-scale miners, now displaced, once carved out a simple living. Conditions at these illegal mega-mines are horrific; on May 1 at least twelve miners paid with their lives when one of the mines collapsed.

In a sickening twist, the displacement and widespread poverty feed the violence. Hopeless youngsters are recruited by paramilitaries and trained to kill in exchange for a sense of belonging and material possessions: new sneakers, gold chains, a bit of power. Thousands take up the offer; it’s what is known here as “salting their souls for the devil.”

“They are leaving us all without children,” says Carlos Rosero, a leader with the Process for Black Communities (PCN). “They are leaving us without territory, exposing complete generations of our people. It’s a huge pain that nothing can compensate.”

Locals in Buenaventura allege that they are being violently forced out of their territory because of trade-related development programs. Whole neighborhoods are scheduled for demolition to accommodate a port expansion and tourism project. 

The struggle continues, as does the brutal pushback. “I will never feel defeated,” says Rosero. “So everyday we have to get up and say to each other, ‘Let’s go. We need to go.’”

Colombia remains a world leader in internally displaced people, a place where activists are punished for speaking out. Rights group Somos Defensores reports that seventy-eighthuman rights defenders were killed last year, up from sixty-nine in 2012. According to Colombian NGO Consultaria para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES), 219,405 Colombians were forcibly displaced in 2013, bringing the total to a staggering 5.9 million, well over 10 percent of the country’s population and second only to Syria. The most recent CODHES report states that the number is likely to be greater because many of those displaced will never register. In the department of Valle del Cauca, where Buenaventura sits, the number jumped from 19,841 in 2012 to 32,892 in 2013.

* * *

In 2011, with objections to the CTPA threatening the passing of the bill in the US Congress, President Obama and his Colombian counterpart, Juan Manuel Santos, enacted a LaborAction Plan, a provision to protect workers in a country that has seen between 3,000 and 4,000 unionists murdered since the late 1980s.

It’s not working. Trade unionists continue to be killed, and the numbers are increasing. The labor school Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS) found that twenty-six trade unionists were assassinated in 2013, a rise of four from their findings a year earlier. A total of 1,066 unionists were targets of harassment, ranging from unfair dismissals to death threats and assassination attempts.

The role of US corporations operating in Colombia is murky at best. In 2007, Chiquita Brands International was fined $25 million by the Justice Department for paying the AUC $1.7 million from 1997 to 2004. Colombia’s attorney general reopened a criminal investigation into the company’s behavior in December 2012. Other US corporations, such as Drummond Coal, Del Monte, Dole and Coca-Cola Bottlers, have also been accused of relationships with paramilitaries. Charges of malfeasance continue to arise; the US food and agriculture giantCargill was forced to respond this year to Oxfam reports that accused it of abusing loopholes in the law to secure huge parcels of land.

In recent days, Colombian congressman Iván Cepeda accused Drummond of seeking to “legalize plundering through processes of adverse possession against displaced and murdered farmers.” Hundreds of families are suing Drummond; paramilitary commandershave testified that they were paid by the company to kill trade unionists. Drummond has always denied wrongdoing, but a 2006 US diplomatic cable describes the coal giant’s private security force as including former paramilitaries.

Former AUC member Juan Camilo Hernandez, who commanded a squad in the department of Antioquia, explains to us the triangular relationship between the paramilitaries, corporate interests and the state. “These multinational companies were better off paying money to the AUC,” he says. “The relationship starts as extortion, but it grows from there. Out of this comes trust. They had all of the money, and money talks.”

The authorities allowed Hernandez and his men free rein, looking the other way as the AUC rampaged from town to town. “We went into these communities and cleaned everything out,” he says. “So, yes, to do that, they gave us permission to pass from zone to zone where there were military and police forces. We worked hand in hand with the Colombian state.”

At the time, authorities denied that a relationship existed, just as they do now. The testimony of jailed paramilitaries, however, led to the so-called parapolitics scandal, an investigation that has exposed the cozy relationship between the state and the AUC. Dozens of politicians have been arrested and the scandal rolls on, including an investigation of former President Uribe, who has long been accused of working with paramilitary groups.

Now demobilized and rebuilding his life, Hernandez says the current situation fits the same old script. In Medellín where we meet him, or in Buenaventura, or in Cauca, it’s nothing new. “I am in civilian life and I see that nothing changes,” he laments. “They are still the same people—they are always going to be permitting things like this for money.”

Militarized police patrol, Buenaventura.

Recruited at the age of 13, he recognizes the difficulties for young people caught up in the carnage. He was once like them: treated like an animal, forced to kill. “If you didn’t pass the training, the organization would execute you,” he says. “They wanted strong men. They tell you at the beginning, ‘The training will be so strong that the war is going to feel like the break.’”

“Well, it left me empty inside,” he manages before crying. “Just emptiness.”

US Representative Jim McGovern, a member of the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia, tells us it’s just more of the same—a powerful group of interests backed by a government with no interest in human rights. “What you have is elite, special interests that are used to getting their way and are determined to make sure that nothing changes,” he says. “That’s what happens when you have a country where bad guys can act with impunity.”

Nowhere is this truer than in Buenaventura. As the HRW report pointed out, more than 150 people were presumed by officials to have been kidnapped and disappeared in the city between January 2010 and December 2013—double the rate of any other Colombian municipality. The report states that prosecutors have launched more than 2,000 investigations into disappearances and forced displacements committed by armed groups in Buenaventura over the past twenty years. There have been no convictions.

“I think it’s pretty clear, looking over history,” McGovern says, when asked if these groups have been used by multinationals to kill. “Many US companies and corporations have been involved in some pretty awful things, and I have no doubt that many of them collaborated with paramilitaries.”

With all the accusations, McGovern is astounded that there hasn’t been a broader investigation. Only Chiquita, which came forward voluntarily and reached a plea deal, has been punished. “I think it’s unrealistic to believe that they have all been above board and have done business in a straightforward and honest manner, even though they would claim to,” he says.

Representative George Miller, also a member of the Congressional monitoring group, is in full agreement. “The [Colombian] attorney general made it very clear to Congressman McGovern and me that they believed there was a connection. They were following leads into the [link] between corporations and the violence.”

“It’s worsening,” Miller adds. “So there is a purpose to this violence. The question is whether or not the Obama administration is going to continue to stand by and let this continue.”

Only intervention from the White House and other partner governments, he says, will change things. “I’m not just talking about American companies. There are other companies that have been displacing people, whether it’s for palm oil or commodities. They’re the beneficiaries of the ability to terrorize people to force them off their land.”

Both men have been to Colombia many times, but are frustrated that despite years of struggle, the situation is still deteriorating. “It’s heartbreaking,” says McGovern. “I come away from these trips just amazed at how [people] can function in a society where they are constantly under threat.”

The United States has funneled billions of dollars, mostly in military aid, to Colombia since the beginning of Uribe’s presidential terms. This has continued under Santos. HRW pointed out in its World Report 2014 that $473 million was granted to Colombia in 2013, almost 60 percent of it going to the military and policing.

“In September 2013, the State Department certified that Colombia was meeting human rights benchmarks,” the report reads, “even though its military justice system reform directly contradicted the condition requiring that civilian authorities investigate and try all alleged human rights violations.”

So why is the Obama administration standing by? “You have to ask him,” says Miller.  “I’m at a complete loss.”

While he gives the president the “benefit of the doubt” that the Labor Action Plan was drafted with good intentions, McGovern feels that it has become a smokescreen. “Thus far you haven’t kept your word,” he says, as if talking to Obama. “You have broken your promise to those members of Congress that voted for the [CTPA]. And even worse, you have broken your promise to the Colombian people and the workers. We have a responsibility here. We have an obligation. We made a promise that human rights would matter, and we have broken that promise.”

Meanwhile, in Buenaventura, the carnage continues, with executions continuing amid the troop surge announced by President Santos. The deployment is nearing the end of its sixty-day mission—just long enough to see out the election. Residents say that Santos’s actions are lip service to deflect criticism of his administration’s culpability in the horror.

* * *

In English, Buenaventura means “good fortune.” Such cruelty in a city that should be thriving begs the question: good fortune for whom? Monsignor Epalza sums up the hopelessness. Sitting at his table, his mind wanders back to a meeting he had in 2013 with a man from Argentina.

“When I met him last year, I told him: ‘I am the bishop from the port city of Buenaventura.’ I reminded him that on the register, he could find Buenaventura on top of Buenos Aires. I said, ‘That’s where you’ll find me: right on top of Buenos Aires.’”

The idea develops. “It just came to me right now that perhaps he could make a little statement. Just a mention or something.”

As he leads us through a hallway to the front door, he taps his finger against a photograph on the wall, a picture capturing their brief meeting. He manages a faint smile that disappears as he offers one final sentence.

“Yes, perhaps just a little mention about Buenaventura would be very helpful,” he says. “Coming from the Pope.”