Lily woke me at Buenaventura, a port town where we would get a boat up the Pacific Coast. We decided to do the ten minute walk from the bus station to the port, through the city’s ugly, dusty streets. Despite its ranking as the busiest seaport in Colombia (according to Wikipedia the port sees 8.5 million tonnes of “merchandise” shipped, plus however much contraband) it’s a poor, forgotten city. Lily told me her father was worried about us coming here.
I remember reading that crime was so bad in Marseilles in the 80s and 90s that travellers used to avoid it altogether. Bag snatching, mugging and so on. That’s what I had in mind when Lily mentioned her father’s fear, which I assumed was just based on overblown, headline-grabbing nonsense that has nothing to do with what life is really like on the ground. Still, if I’d read what the Economist had to say about it, I might have been a little more nervous.
The city of Buenaventura, home to 400,000 residents, is a throwback to the country’s dark past. It is Colombia’s most violent city. Most of the inhabitants live in poverty and fear, caught between two rival criminal groups.
More than 50,000 city residents have been forced from their homes in the past three years, fleeing extortion, death, and forced recruitment into one of the gangs. Around 150 people have been reported as forcibly disappeared. The mutilated body parts of at least a dozen people have been found washed up along Buenaventura’s shores, according to human-rights groups. In its report, Human Rights Watch said that victims of the criminal groups are often dismembered alive in what are known as ‘chop-up houses’. Police have discovered four such houses in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods this month.
“The situation in Buenaventura is among the very worst we’ve seen in many years of working in Colombia,” says José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Simply walking on the wrong street can get you abducted and dismembered, so it’s no surprise the residents are fleeing by the thousands.”
The government has sent 700 additional troops to try to quell the violence in the city but residents say they need more than boots on the ground. With more than 80% of the population living in poverty, unemployment above 30%, unreliable supplies of electricity and water, and dismal road infrastructure, it is one of the country’s least developed cities. Colombia has made great strides in recent years to reduce poverty…. But for the inhabitants of Buenaventura the situation remains intolerably bleak.
It’s difficult to believe these are the same streets that the Economist is talking about.
Incidentally, the above article prompted the government to do a military surge in the city in 2014, which dropped the crime rate by a third. But, a year later, the Bogota Post followed up on Buenaventura, describing “the increase in sexual violence as the city’s ‘best-kept secret'”, and that the “recent discovery of the mass graves has raised questions about whether last year’s military surge in the city has had any lasting impact.”
The busy dock in Buenaventura
Our walk was uneventful. And at the dock, market stalls and carts sold trinkets, juices and local foods. We wandered onto the boat to Juanchaco, a 25 foot wooden motorboat with a plastic canopy to keep the sun off. It hugged the jungle coastline, cruising along with the swell of the ocean. There are no major roads where we were going, so boating is the only way of getting to Juanchaco, Ladrilleros or our destination, La Barra, unless you fly into the military airport.
The three towns don’t even register on Google Maps. No roads, no railway, nothing other than jungle.
We docked at the end of a long concrete peer in Juanchaco, tired and looking for a lift. As it was high tide the shorter path along the shore to La Barra was submerged. We either had to take the inland path by foot, which would have been a couple of hours, or hop on one of the waiting motorbikes.
Neither of us had ever been on a motorbike before, and this first time was a treat – recent rains had turned sections of the dirt track into a muddy slip-n-slide, complete with wooden boards laid over small gullys and foot-deep sludge. The rubber boots of our drivers kept us upright as we wobbled along. The last 5 minutes of the ride were racing along firm wet sand through fresh sea air. Marvellous.