Long marred by poverty and neglect, the port city of Buenaventura on Colombia’s Pacific coast must now also contend with the daily terrors of a relentless and escalating war between rival drug gangs.
Every day by mid-afternoon, shops close their shutters and the streets become empty as residents rush to safety before night falls.
The ones that can be locked behind iron gates. Others find what shelter they can in stilt shacks or zinc shacks nestled in stagnant water and filth along unlit potholed streets.
“We are witnessing a new urban and territorial war” in Buenaventura, Juan Manuel Torres of the Colombian Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation told AFP.
“The situation has become very violent and out of control,” he said, as the “Shottas” and “Spartanos” gangs battle for supremacy in the largely Afro-Colombian community.
With a population of nearly 400,000, Buenaventura saw 576 murders in the five years from 2017 to 2021 – one of the highest homicide rates for a city in one of the world’s most violent countries.
Last year, the city recorded 50 “enforced disappearances” in a vicious gang-led campaign of intimidation and extortion.
When AFP visited, the fear was palpable as police patrolled cautiously, guns drawn and pointed at the crumbling buildings that line the plastic-strewn streets.
At night, an escorted hearse arrived to pick up the bullet-riddled corpse left in the open.
In Buenaventura’s John XXIII neighborhood, almost daily reports of violence.
It was there that the gangs, armed with automatic weapons, clashed for several hours on August 30, in what the media called the “night of terror.”
“The power in the neighborhood is Shottas and Spartanos,” said Buenaventura Bishop Ruben Dario Jaramillo.
“They are stronger than the government; residents have no choice but to submit,” he told AFP.
According to Torres, what is happening in Buenaventura indicates a “total failure of the state”.
This allowed the gangs, he said, to “copy the population, recruit children without a future” in a city where 43 percent of the population is poor and one in three unemployed.
Neighborhood activist Wilmar Valencia Orozco said people are too afraid to leave their homes — even more so their immediate neighborhood.
The most dangerous parts are the “invisible borders” between areas controlled by one gang or another.
“Young people with no history (with gangs) get kidnapped and killed just because they live in a certain neighborhood,” Orozco said.
Shottas and Spartanos were formed in late 2020 after the previous cartel called “La Local” split in two.
Both have ties to armed groups fighting to control illegal mining, drug crops and smuggling routes in the vast Colombian jungle.
“The backbone of their (gang) business is drug trafficking. Then micro-trafficking, extortion… and now legal trafficking,” said Jaramillo, the priest.
According to Torres, the gangs have recently taken over the grocery store in Buenaventura: “eggs, cheese, fruit…no staple food escapes them,” he said.
The doctor, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, pointed to many empty shops.
“Many traders had to close down. If you don’t pay, they will kill you,” he explained.
“Gangs are the law in Buenaventura!”
The shop owner said he had to raise prices because the gangsters were extorting more money for protection.
The taxi driver said: “There are two taxes here, official and street. And the other one, we really feel it!”
Authorities say the Shottas and Spartanos have between 400 and 600 members each, up to 1,000, including those in prison.
The main focus of their dispute is the waterways that cross the city and provide access to Buenaventura Bay for easy drug transportation, said military official Lt. Col. Samuel Aguilar.
The soldiers and police deployed in the city face an uphill battle.
“Both gangs have huge logistics and a lot of little hands, ‘flies,'” Aguilar said of the kids who do unpleasant jobs for the gangsters and create a nuisance.
“We can’t be everywhere at once,” the official added.
Colombia’s first left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, expressed concern over the “serious situation of violence” in Buenaventura, which he blamed on decades of state neglect.
Petro visited the city this month as part of his “total peace” campaign, which includes offering gang members an alternative to jail time if they turn themselves in.
Both gangs indicated that they are ready for negotiations, the president then announced.
“It’s a chance for them not to die or end up in prison,” Torres said of the prospect of surrender.
Orozco, the activist, added: “They are tired of killing each other and hiding. They just want to be able to enjoy their money.”