Buenaventura’s Humanitarian and Social Crisis, One Year Later

Community Groups Gather in Buenaventura, Mark One Year Anniversary of Historic Peace March

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On the heels of 187 murders, 39 reported forced disappearances and 4,745 inter-urban displaced people in the municipality of Buenaventura in 2013 alone, residents had reached a boiling point.  Leaders representing congregations of faith, unions, students and Buenaventura’s diverse communities released a manifesto calling on the national government to respond to the humanitarian and social crisis in Buenaventura. On February 19th, 2014 over 30,000 residents of Buenaventura, dressed in white, flooded the streets of their city in an unprecedented demonstration of unity.  People came together under a unified banner: “End violence and live with dignity in Buenaventura.”

The manifesto highlighted the alarming rates of violence as a result of the national government’s failure to comply with its constitutional obligation to ensure the population’s safety and welfare. Demands included an emergency response to the current crisis by the government and long term strategies for social investment and development. Protestors call for significant investment in healthcare, education, job development and access to vital infrastructure such as clean water and insist that the armed forces protect the citizens of Buenaventura.

A new coalition was formed in the wake of this massive mobilization, known as The March Committee, to push for proposed reforms.  Today, one year since the march took place, community stakeholders gathered in efforts to keep pressure on the national government, celebrate limited victories and refocus public attention on key issues.  A press conference, rally and cultural event was held in front of Buenaventura’s Mayoral offices.  Diocese Héctor Epalza Quintero, the coalition’s most prominent leader, voiced the widely-felt sentiment that “one year after 30,000 residents marched in the streets of Buenaventura, the magic we have created here is embodied in the hope and solidarity that people have shown. The people have said ‘no’ to violence and fear.  They say ‘yes’ to a different Buenaventura.  It is a ray of hope and commitment on the part of the citizenry.”

Developments and Unfulfilled Promises

Murders in Buenaventura reportedly decreased by 38% in 2014, in relation to statistics for 2013.  Many attribute this drop to a significant number of military agents temporarily deployed in the city.  One community leader said that “the crisis in Buenaventura created a problem for President Santos’ re-election hopes.  Unfortunately, once he was re-elected the military disappeared.’  Others have suggested that neo-paramilitary group Urabeños consolidated control of strategic neighborhoods, resulting in a temporary lull in its turf war with rival group La Empresa.  In January, 2015 four clandestine graves were discovered in Barrio El Progresso, in Buenaventura’s Comuna 12, an area that local residents say has become a clandestine cemetery.  Community leaders expressed hope that the decline in murders would continue in a downward trend, while also noting a need to investigate the relationship between higher rates of violence, displacement and murder in areas where new development projects are proposed or underway.  Though eight prosecutors have been added in Buenaventura, rates of impunity remain alarmingly high.

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Members of Buenaventura’s two largest healthcare unions (ANTHOC and SINTRAHOSPLAP) conducted a mock funeral to call attention to their failing system.

Buenaventura’s healthcare network has shown signs of significant deterioration over the past year, underlined by the liquidation of its only public hospital. The closest full service hospital for the city’s 400,000 residents is now a three hour drive away in Cali.  While the national government provided six new ambulances for the city in the past year, currently only 62 hospital beds are in operation for the city’s entire population.  This week it was announced that plans for a refurbished hospital opening in April have been pushed back until at least November.

Private enterprise Hidropacífico assumed responsibility of Buenaventura’s water distribution in 2002, replacing public company Acuavalle, with the promise to bring fresh water to residents’ homes 24 hours a day . Thirteen years later service has declined notably, as a result of corruption, absentee political leadership and lack of oversight. The majority of the city’s residents have access to running water in their homes for no more than a few hours every other day.  Community leader Narcilo Rosero Castillo explains that last year the government agreed to repair the water system in four key areas, and ensure potable water service to Buenaventura’s homes on a permanent basis by the end of October, 2015.  While progress has been made to repair the intake system, nothing has been done to address deteriorating pipes, purify water or improve distribution.  Residents demanded access to running water today, pouring buckets of water over their heads and chanting ‘Hidropacífico needs to go.’

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Unemployment in Buenaventura continues to hover at a staggering 63%. The national government has proposed setting 5 billion pesos (roughly $2 million USD) aside for the artisanal and informal sectors of the Buenaventuran workforce, but according to Manuel Bedoya, president of the Artisanal Fisherman Association, the money has yet to materialize.  Plans also exist to redevelop a small port for independent fishermen but, likewise, there is no evidence of advancements.

Moreover, little oversight is applied to ensure that legal standards are applied in the city’s existing jobs. Jhon Jhairo Castro, president of Buenaventura’s port workers union announced that a study conducted by the union to be published in March, examining labor conditions in the nation’s five largest ports revealed a widespread disregard for national labor laws and international conventions across the board. In Buenaventura, illegal subcontracting is so prevalent that workers often have four levels of separation between themselves and their employer.   The average wage for a port worker in Buenaventura is a meager 646,000 pesos ($262 USD) a month, less than half of a port worker in Cartagena.

Humberto Hurtado, local representative of Colombian labor federation CUT, expressed concern regarding the Santos administration’s recent announcement of a 17 trillion peso (7 billion dollar) cut to social development nationally. Hurtado does not think government will be able to follow through on many of its commitments in Buenaventura.

In 2014, the Colombian government received over $2 billion USD in tax revenues from Buenaventura’s port-based commerce. The city’s residents feel this wealth is not being reinvested in the community.  President Santo’s recent appointment of Luis Gilberto Murillo to oversee a new program called The Pacific Initiative is one promising sign, but this year residents of Buenaventura will look to the Colombian government to produce results by fulfilling recent commitments.  As Epalza Quintero said today, “the government has turned its back on Buenaventura.  Now is the time to extend a generous hand to our city in order to lift us out of our social and humanitarian crisis.”