S.O.S. from Colombia’s largest port / S.O.S. del puerto principal de Colombia

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SOS: Permanent Mission for Life in Buenaventura December 2013-December 2014

“Many say that they have heard people screaming and begging for mercy, that try to identify themselves and swear they aren’t informants. They have also heard these screams fall silent and then days later seen human remains floating in the bay. Some even speak of a mill that criminals use to literally cut their victims into pieces, which are then thrown into the sea.”

Humanitarian drama in Colombia’s largest port Since December 20, 2013 there have been new forced displacements; hundreds of families have fled the metropolitan area of Buenaventura toward rural zones. The humanitarian crisis affects children, women, the elderly and youth. Conflicts between paramilitary groups are a daily reality and affect the entire population. The most serious cases are found in Communities 4, 8 and 12 of Buenaventura, where these groups’ actions continue to leave a trail of civilian murders, forced disappearances and forced displacement in their wake.

A permanent mission for life is urgently required in the port; therefore, we request different national and international human rights organizations to join this mission and demand that the Colombian government comply with their constitutional mandates as well as international human rights conventions to guarantee Buenaventura’s citizens their right to life and to remain on their land.

Buenaventura: The maximum expression of barbarism in Colombia The systematic destruction of the life, thought and culture of Buenaventura’s Afro-descendant population has reached a new extreme this year. The conflicts between armed groups, the systematic violent actions against the residents of the most vulnerable neighborhoods and the modus operandi of these groups continues to generate terror and fear in the whole population, which has had of to submit to permanent individual, massive, interurban, inter-municipal and interstate displacements. Armed conflicts occur daily and put the life, culture, physical and psychological health of the port’s residents.

The population residing in the most vulnerable neighborhoods live in a permanent state of fear and are obligated to flee their homes, living in profound poverty and struggling to survive. It is difficult to give an exact statistic supporting this fact since existing figures fluctuate from three to six forced disappearances and two to three assassinations daily within city limits. This cruel reality cannot be hidden and civil authorities, local government, military and investigative bodies like the CTI, Legal Medicine and the district attorney are conscience of this fact. The underlying problem is that there are no results from the investigations, which points to a failure on the part of the authorities to halt the violence and prosecute the perpetrators.

Walking around Buenaventura’s neighborhoods coffins borne by relatives and a few friends are a common sight, which goes against the tradition of black communities. Funerals for loved ones are a solemn act in which the entire community participates, accompanied by traditional music and instruments which all form part of the right to grieve and to a dignified burial. Victims of these horrendous crimes are denied their right. We have heard stories of relatives that have had to be buried in pieces by their families because the victims are objected to such cruel practices. In Buenaventura, “They don’t only massacre, assassinate, kill, but they also quarter their victims which causes us great pain; we can’t remain indifferent to this situation,” declared Monsignor Hector Epalza, the city’s bishop. “Buenaventura is owed the truth, not more lies and falsehoods,” he reiterated on several occasions in Prelado.

Many say that they have heard people screaming and begging for mercy, that try to identify themselves and swear they aren’t informants. They have also heard these screams fall silent and then days later seen human remains floating in the bay. Some even speak of a mill that criminals use to literally cut their victims into pieces, which are then thrown into the sea. Many children have been victims of these practices and the remains of their mutilated bodies are still in Legal Medicine, waiting to be identified and claimed by their families.

The human rights crisis and crimes committed by groups like La Empresa, the Anti-Land Restitution Armies, Los Rastrojos, Campesinos del Pacifico, Los Urabeños, Los Nuevos Urabeños, Los Verdaderos Urabeños and Los Gaitanistas recall the barbaric methods of Colombia’s worst decades of violence, like the 1950’s, 1980’s, 1990’s and early 2000’s. The peace process with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) ended by obfuscating the Colombian state’s role in the creation, conformation, acquiescence, collaboration and financial support of these groups. After negotiating with the paramilitaries, the Colombian government launched its so-called Criminal Gangs (BACRIM) strategy, allowing national and international human rights organizations to give it some sort of credibility and portray the state as the victim rather than the perpetrator.

The assassinations, forced disappearances, femicides, interurban displacements, rapes (including of children) and mutilations are presented by the Colombian government as if they were part of a war between the so-called Criminal Gangs and/or old paramilitary groups. However, there are hidden structural causes. “At the heart of the conflict is territorial control in order to be able to realize port expansion projects, container storage units, warehouses or touristic works like the boardwalk.”

Social organizations, human right defenders, faith-based groups, Afro-Colombian faith leaders and the Pacific Regional Coordination have exposed this reality to governmental and non-governmental entities many times. Countless legal actions, reports and recommendations have not managed to halt the cruelty of these armed actors. No one responds to the question that Buenaventura’s residents are asking: Why are they killing us? And for what?

Is it just criminal gangs? Or is there a deliberate policy of forced displacement to guarantee territorial and economic control of the port? With the sophism of the so-called criminal gangs the Colombian state once again presents itself as a victim of drug trafficking, petty crime and a guerrilla insurgency, evading its historic responsibility in the serious situation of violence and inequality in which the port finds itself today. Confrontations, executions and displacements rose in 2013 and the only recourse that communities have is to silently flee the violence through forced displacement.

The context of elections and peace talks have made invisible the reality of the social and armed conflict and the inhumanity that black communities in Buenaventura face. The action and subsequent omission of the Colombian state in this inhumanity is justified by classifying violent incidences as the work of “criminal gangs.” Characterized in this way and with the general terror this incites, the state is absolved of all responsibility. For their part, victims are afraid to report violence because of persecution, threats and the elimination that witnesses and others that file reports have suffered. When they decide to file a report, many of them are assassinated before they even make it to the district attorney’s office. Thirty-eight-year-old campesino Norman Cordoba Yandum was assassinated on December 20, 2013. A native of Putumayo, who was living in Dagua, he was on his way to eat lunch in the marketplace and then an appointment with the district attorney, when an unidentified person shot him. The victim had come to Buenaventura from Dagua to file a report.

Recent incidents: Confrontations, threats, displacements and confinement of urban populations On December 20 a letter was circulated in the La Playita neighborhood of Community 4, signed by a group calling itself Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia[1]. It read:

“Good evening. We are an organization that fights and defends the interests of the population least-favored by our Colombian state in this armed social conflict. Because of the corrupt policies of the current government our AGC (Autodefensa Gaitainsta de Colombia, or Gaitanista Self-Defense of Colombia) was created and invited to plan and execute actions that would neutralize all propagandist political actions that try to discredit us. It is the moment to set precedents and let the world know that we are an army, a real armed social force that defends our society’s interests and that we are not BACRIM. It is the time to come out of the shadows and fight for the social re-vindication and dignity of our people. Sincerely, AGC Military coordinator Mateo Bedoya. Once again time is running out, we didn’t want to fight with you all nor with the civilian population but that’s how you want things, the bombing starts today in the Alfonso Lopez neighborhood and any other civilian population there. Sincerely, Autodefensa Gaitanistas de Colombia.”

This group appeared about two months ago under their new name “Autodefensa Gaitanistas de Colombia,” however, in the last few years several different groups have been active, including Los Nuevos Urabeños, Los Chocoanos and La Empresa.[2]

After these pamphlets appeared on December 20, around 3P.M. The so-called Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia confronted the paramilitary group Los Urabeños in the Alfonso Lopez neighborhood. Approximately 100 armed men announced they would kill the civilian population in the Piedras Canta y Playita neighborhoods. One civilian was killed who remains unidentified, and several people were disappeared including two women.

In the Cristal neighborhood in Community 8, Los Urabeños have threatened the La Playita neighborhood in Community 4 and the Nayeros Bridge with invasions and bombings. The population in these communities continue to be displaced and there are a large number of people requesting help leaving because they have nowhere to go.

Los Gaitanistas have announced that they will exterminate Los Urabeños in Alfonso Lopez and any collaborators, and have also affirmed that among the latter are the National Police of Buenaventura. Youth and children continue to be victims of this atrocious reality, as they are obligated to enter the ranks of these groups, take up arms and fire against their own people.

What is happening in Buenaventura? Buenaventura is Colombia’s largest maritime port and the second largest in Latin America. In 2012 a total of 14,306,9061 tons of cargo passed through the ports, which was 656,522 tons more than in 2011. In the first half of 2013 new port cranes arrived, which the Port Society of Buenaventura claims brought made the loading and unloading of cargo more efficient. This is what happens.

The Santos administration’s priority is the signing of 13 free trade and international agreements, which requires a “free” port is needed—as black and indigenous communities are corralled in their own territory to then be displaced.

Let’s remember that during the Port Society’s inauguration of the port trawl on Dock 4, President Juan Manuel Santos accepted Governor Ubeimar Delgado’s proposal and announced that he would evaluate whether a high counselor for Buenaventura or some other figure to manage shares is the best to head up Buenaventura’s development.

International missions and monitoring The degradation of the conflict that is lived, the frightening typologies of violence and the enormous social gap that separates a a comfortable minority from a majority living in poverty, misery and unemployment inspire sad phrases like that of the High Human Rights Commissioner from the United Nations, Todd Howland, who, after comparing Buenaventura to the Congo, stated, “The poverty in Buenaventura is an embarrassment for a country that, like Colombia, has money.”

Since August 2013, four national and international verification missions that visited the port corroborated the seriousness of the confrontations and the crimes in the neighborhoods and established that during the first week of November at least 707 families, approximately 2,400 people were forcibly displaced. These statistics have tripled from November 7 to the present.

August 27-28, 2014 two U.S Congressional Representatives, James McGovern and George Miller, visited Colombia with the purpose of verifying if the Labor Action Plan signed as part of the FTA between Presidents Obama and Santos is being implemented in the Valle del Cauca province, visiting the cities of Cali and Buenaventura. In the port they heard countless reports from communities and at the end of the visit mad recommendations to improve the human rights situation.

In the first week of November 2013, the Victims Unit’s via their Valle del Cauca Emergency Prevention and Attention Team, confirmed via interviews with affected families, community leaders, social organizations and faith communities the reality of displacements and demand for an end to the violence. Other demands included the urgent necessity for humanitarian food assistance, healthcare and education, prevention of the accelerated ripping of the social fabric, strengthening of community processes in the most vulnerable neighborhoods and above all else protections from the Colombian state guaranteeing their right to life.[3]

On November 22 the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights in Colombia, Todd Howland, recommended adopting urgent measures to end the violence and the intervention of the Comptroller and Attorney General’s Offices to strengthen state presence in the city. The recommendations were made during a humanitarian mission in which UNHCR representative Felipe Camargo and National Ombudsman Jorge Armando Otalora participated.

Since 1999 Buenaventura has suffered crimes that remain in impunity, like the Katanga, Cisneros, Naya and Triana massacres carried out by the Pacific, Calima and Fallarones Blocs of the AUC’s Valle del Cauca chapter. They were heavily denounced by the victims’ families and human rights organizations in spite of the climate of terror that dominated that time, and contain a broad range of times, places, methods and responsible parties, circumstances which since 2010 have seemed almost impossible to establish due to the shifting nature and names of the groups involved. The war unleashed by groups today known as Los Urabeños, La Empresa and Los Rastrojos have covered up deaths and disappearances, causing a permanent confusion. Why the confusion? What is the strategy? For whom and for what ends is this profitable? What are the real statistics? Who is registering these facts? These are questions that must be resolved urgently to stop the inhumanity, poverty and inequality that Buenaventura is living.

We ask all national and international human rights organizations that defend life, culture and nature to join the PERMANENT MISSION FOR LIFE IN BUENAVENTURA, and with respect to their different mandates, join the call for the respect for life, territory and harmony, issuing urgent actions and other communications to the government to stop the war in Buenaventura.

NOMADESC Assocation (Association for Research and Social Action) MOVICE (Movement for the Victims of State Crimes) PCN (Black Community Processes)

MINGA de Resistencia Social y Comunitaria (Movement for Social and Community Resistence) Congreso de los Pueblos (People’s Congress)

[1] The Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, or Don Masic Black Eagles, are a naroparamilitary group from Colombia founded on October 15, 2008 in Urabá, Antiouqia that supposedly disappeared in July 2009 shortly after the capture of their leader Daniel Rendón Herrera alias Don Masic. However, they continued under various criminal gang (BACRIM) structures, including the Black Eagles (Águilas Negras). The new groups were formed to fill the gap left by demobilization of the AUC in an attempt to avoid drug trafficking, homicide and extortion charges and to promote criminal activities of Los Urabeños and Castaño Heroes Bloc in an effort to identify themselves with counterinsurgency efforts.

[2] It is important to note that in Colombia one of the most frequently utilized methods of impunity and hiding those truly responsible for crimes against humanity is the change in denomination for paramilitary groups, a common practice since the 1980’s.

[3] http://www.unidadvictimas.gov.co/index.php/79-noticias/1407-mision-de-verificacion-en-buenaventura-por-victimas-de-bacrim