On the rural outskirts of Buenaventura in western Colombia, the war for control of the cocaine routes rages and empties the villages of the Colombian Pacific.
The few inhabitants who remained there live holed up in their homes. They “are confined, threatened, frightened”, but prefer to die in the village rather than flee to the city to survive begging, told AFP Diego Portocarrero, one of the members of this Afro-Colombian community.
Here, in the middle of the jungle and the mangroves, the fighters of the ELN (National Liberation Army), an extreme left-wing guerrilla inspired by Guevarist, clash mercilessly with the members of the Clan del Golfo, the main gang of drug traffickers in the country.
The challenge? Seize the villages located all along the Calima and San Juan rivers, a cocaine exit route to the Pacific.
In a low voice, a resident explains how the narcos imposed themselves and some live in the houses abandoned by their owners: “What we had to live, see and hear is unspeakable”, he breathes.
The walls testify to this: riddled with bullet holes, and tagged with the acronyms of the two belligerents, “ELN” against “AGC”, for “Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia” as the Clan del Golfo likes to call itself.
As one group gains the upper hand over the other, the loser’s graffiti is scraped off the facades. At La Colonia, the “AGCs” seem to have taken over.
– “Drip” –
In this region of Buenaventura, the war has descended from the mountains to the villages on the banks of the rivers, where illegal immigrants now roam and blend freely among the civilians.
Drowned in a lush jungle on the shores of the Pacific, this region of 317,000 inhabitants (91% of whom are Afro-Colombians) is a postcard of terror.
Nearly 300,000 displaced persons, victims of the armed conflict, have found refuge in the poor neighborhoods of the port of Buenaventura, a major route for exporting drugs to the United States, where the entire local economy is also stifled by extortion.
“The displacement (of populations) has changed. Now it’s drop by drop, silent” and “it’s worse” because the peace agreement has not put an end to these forced displacements, and there now has more “obstacles” to the recognition of these victims before the State, observes Juan Manuel Torres, researcher at the think tank Fundacion Paz y Reconciliacion (Pares).
With some 3,200 members nationwide, according to Pares, the Clan in Buenaventura had a clear advantage over the ELN thanks to its military superiority.
To the south and east of the rural area, dissidents from the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who reject the 2016 peace accord are also on the rise; in the urban perimeter, hundreds of young people are in the ranks of two now rival criminal gangs from the paramilitary organization “La Local”.
In the city, in the gymnasiums or on the football fields where they have found refuge, the displaced, black and indigenous, are confined to makeshift shelters, at the mercy of the gangs.
In these poverty-stricken neighborhoods, whose alleys are cut-throats, they survive exposed to racketeering, poverty (41%), unemployment (18%), forced recruitment, homicides, sexual abuse and disappearances.
“We had to leave our territory to come here in need, it was very sad, very hard,” laments Nancy Hurtado. The assailants “came to the village shooting, pulling people out of houses, children”.
– Distant election –
At 52, Nancy sleeps in a gymnasium, under a football goal, where the loincloths hung on the net give her a vague intimacy, in the middle of hundreds of other displaced people like her.
Families improvise kitchens, laundry rooms, bedrooms, television rooms. Even miles from her village, Nancy still feels hunted. “Who would want to die like that?” she asks.
Homicides in Buenaventura have risen from 73 in 2017 to 195 in 2021 as a direct result of drug trafficking. Dismembered bodies are thrown into the sea.
A few days before the presidential election of May 29, in which they will not be able to participate because unable to vote in their territories, the displaced people of Buenaventura show little interest in this election where, for the first time, the left could come to power in Colombia.
Their priorities are elsewhere: to eat, to sleep in safety, to survive on a daily basis… “Communities will never win, we will always lose”, laments Diego.
The headquarters of an indigenous radio station is home to a tight-knit group of 158 displaced people from the Wounaan Nonam ethnic group.
The community suffered displacement in 2004, 2010, 2017, but in November 2021, for the first time, the whole village had to flee.
“We had to leave everything: our houses, the dogs, the chickens…”, recalls the leader of the group, Edgar Garcia, 45.
Luis Ismare fled one early morning in February with 80 other Wounaan Indians. “It’s like disappearing. It’s like throwing yourself into a deep hole, (which) you imagine you’ll never get out of. And you disconnect from mother earth.”