BUENAVENTURA, Colombia — A gentle breeze wafts through the wooden stilt house rocked by the ocean’s waves in the seaside neighborhood of Puente Nayero, providing a welcome respite from the stifling Pacific Coast heat. Children’s shouts and laughter and popular salsa music filter in through the door as Miguel Caicedo,* an Afro-Colombian community leader and small-scale fisherman, demonstrates the fishing techniques he has been practicing for 47 years and reflects on the changes he has seen in his community.
Leaving for eight to 10 days at a time in a small boat, groups of fishermen — usually composed of several family members — journey up to 90 miles along the coast to catch at least the ton of fish needed to make a living. The route has progressively grown longer as nearby fish have become scarce. Demonstrating the use of a specific fishing hook while easily reciting at least 10 different species of fish and seafood, Caicedo takes pride in his community’s fishing tradition.
“For us, small-scale fishing is incredibly important to sustain ourselves,” he affirms.
But dwindling fish populations are not the only threat to Caicedo’s livelihood. The port city of Buenaventura, of which Puente Nayero is a part, has become infamous for extreme rates of disappearance, assassination, displacement and dismemberment carried out by paramilitary groups vying for control of lucrative drug smuggling routes that extend north to Central America and ultimately the United States. Buenaventura’s strategic location as Colombia’s largest port, as well as its network of rivers and estuaries, has made it sought after by both illicit and licit business interests. Such interests have disproportionately affected the city’s Afro-Colombian communities: the descendants of Africans enslaved by the Spanish crown who settled in the Pacific region and today make up nearly 90 percent of Buenaventura’s half-million-person population.
Despite the special deployment of thousands of military troops to the city by Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos in 2014, residents argue that the militarization of the city and the presence of state security forces have had little effect. Witnessing police inaction as well as some cases of abuse —one Puente Nayero youth was tortured with electric shocks by police in June 2014 — local residents suspect indifference and even collusion of state security forces with paramilitary groups.
In addition to paramilitary control of his neighborhood, Caicedo also has to contend with Buenaventura port expansion projects that push out small-scale fishing operations. Despite being approached last year by three paramilitaries who threatened to assassinate him, he remains firm in his support of the year-old nonviolent initiative in his community known as the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space. Made up of one street and two adjoining bridges lined with houses built over the ocean, Puente Nayero is a residential community of approximately 300 families. Caicedo insists that the Humanitarian Space — an area free of illegal armed actors — is a crucial tool for defending Puente Nayero’s families, physical territory, ancestral fishing livelihood and cultural practices.
“I’m threatened here, but I put up with these threats in order to defend my territory. I am a founder of this process,” says Caicedo.
In the face of so much violence, why did Puente Nayero decide to form a Humanitarian Space and resist nonviolently? Living in constant fear and anxiety, community members decided to take action in the wake of two events that happened in their neighborhood. One was the brutal murder of seafood vendor Marisol Rodríguez, who was assassinated in March 2014 for protesting the disappearance of her husband and son. Paramilitaries brought her to a “chop-up house” — the name given to houses used to dismember victims — and began to torture her. Bleeding, she escaped from her attackers and fell into the ocean, where the men pursued her, tied rocks to her body and drowned her. This event was followed one month later by the assassination of 16-year-old Carlos Angarita. After finishing a day of work selling coconut water, Angarita was dismembered by paramilitaries. Community members discovered his body the next morning less than 50 yards from Puente Nayero.
Witnessing such bloodshed so close to their homes, community members made the decision to create the Humanitarian Space in April of last year. They formed a leadership committee and petitioned for help from the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace, a Colombian NGO that documents and defends human rights. They also became the first urban area to join CONPAZ, a network of 120 communities in Colombia that strive to defend their territorial, cultural and human rights from the country’s many armed actors. Committing to a practice of nonviolence and aided by the presence of national and international peace observers, the residents of Puente Nayero succeeded in driving out the paramilitaries, a process that has been fraught with constant death threats over the last year.
“The Humanitarian Space was formed,” said one resident, “because there was too much violence and the community began to reflect. We did not want to remain quiet.”
Although the Humanitarian Space is geographically a very small area of Buenaventura, perhaps the equivalent of two square blocks, Puente Nayero community members hope that their grassroots initiative will continue to grow and expand to neighboring communities. In fact, residents on the neighboring street of Punta Icaco have recently began organizing to create their own Humanitarian Space, indicating the growth of a grassroots initiative that seeks to build long-term security in Buenaventura street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Community leaders argue that relentless paramilitary presence indicates a larger, more insidious phenomenon: the corporate and tourist makeover of Buenaventura that relies on violent actors to effect mass displacements of Afro-Colombian communities living in oceanfront or otherwise strategic areas, freeing up that land for port expansion and “development” projects, a strategy tacitly supported by the Colombian state eager to boost foreign investment, trade and tourism. As implementation of these projects moves forward, the construction of expensive hotels, business centers and port infrastructure steadily pushes out Afro-Colombian communities, signaling the growing social and geographical gentrification of the city.
The port of Buenaventura currently moves more than 600,000 shipping containers each year, representing approximately 60 percent of Colombia’s imports and exports. Various port expansion projects endorsed by the Colombian government will require the displacement — whether voluntary or involuntary — of communities in Buenaventura. These projects will almost exclusively benefit the estimated 12 owners of Buenaventura’s port business, further increasing inequality in a city with a 90 percent poverty rate.
As the Colombian government continues to implement neoliberal economic policies, signing on to agreements such as the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, the Pacific Alliance regional free trade bloc, and free trade agreements with the European Union, Israel and South Korea, communities have noticed increased presence of armed actors, especially paramilitaries, in strategic territories for foreign investment. Various cases of alleged links between paramilitaries and multinational corporations have been documented in other areas of Colombia as well, with well-known examples involving companies such as Chiquita Brands International, Coca-Cola and Nestle.
In the case of Puente Nayero, the construction of an oceanfront boardwalk tourist project has been most directly responsible for displacement.
“It is the Bahía de la Cruz Boardwalk [project] that wants to kick us out, to exterminate the communities that are here, mostly in the oceanfront neighborhoods,” affirmed Puente Nayero leader Nhora Isabel Castillo. “Ever since they began to plan the boardwalk, we’ve seen violence in Buenaventura like never before. … That’s why we feel there’s a connection between the violence and the projects.”
Castillo added that the proposed relocation of the families of Puente Nayero to the inland neighborhood of San Antonio will bring about the cultural and economic demise of the community, as San Antonio has no access to the ocean and 60 percent of the Afro-Colombian families in Puente Nayero, including Miguel Caicedo’s family, survive through small-scale fishing.
“Without this process [the Humanitarian Space], our street would have been abandoned because of the violence,” says Caicedo, affirming his hope that continued organizing will help his community defend itself — rejecting paramilitary control and the corporate makeover of Buenaventura that it heralds.
Lisa Taylor is a member of the Witness for Peace Colombia Team. This article is adapted from a version that appeared on upsidedownworld.org.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual.
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