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Paramilitary Violence, Dismemberment in Buenaventura Escalates Into a 'Humanitarian Crisis'

First Posted: May 31, 2014 09:44 AM EDT

Photo : Getty Images/Dan Kitwood / Staff

Buenaventura is a seaport city on the Pacific coast of Colombia. Home to a large Afro-Colombian population, it's also the setting for violence so severe that it's driven more than 5 million people from their homes. Spanish for "good fortune," Buenaventura hosts the second largest population of internally displaced people in the entire world, and for each of the past three years, it has led all Colombian municipalities with the number of newly displaced people. A new report from Human Rights Watch, "The Crisis in Buenaventura: Disappearances, Dismemberment, and Displacement in Colombia's Main Pacific Port," documents the violence and terror, the widespread abuses and the sweeping displacement of an entire population.

Entire neighborhoods of the city have been seized and dominated by powerful paramilitary groups, known as the Urabeños and the Empresa. They restrict the movements of residents, recruit children, extort businesses and commit horrific acts when defied. They are responsible for the disappearance of hundreds of residents and dismembering countless others, then dumping their parts into the bay along the mangrove-covered shores or burying them in unmarked graves. The slaughters and dismemberments occur in casas de pique (or "chop-up houses"). Killings often go unreported due to fear of reprisal. One resident told Human Rights Watch he'd heard what he believed to be screams from someone being dismembered, but he didn't report the crime.

"No matter how much screaming you hear, the fear prevents you from doing anything. ... People know where the chop-up houses are but do not do anything about it because the fear is absolute," a Buenaventura resident said.

Between January 2010 and December 2013, more than 150 people have gone missing, presumed abducted or disappeared, twice as many than any other Colombian municipality. Historically, violence in Buenaventura has been orchestrated by left-wing guerrillas in rural areas, but currently violence and displacement is concentrated in the area's urban center, where 90 percent of the municipality's population lives. In 2009, Colombia's Constitutional Court found that the displaced Afro-Colombian population's fundamental rights have been "massively and continuously ignored," naming Buenaventura as an emblematic case. U.N. representatives have stated that the city was experiencing a "humanitarian crisis." Nonetheless, violence persists.

Empresa or Urabeños have been seen meeting privately with police, feeding "a profound distrust in authorities and a pervasive sense of defenselessness in the face of the groups' constant abuses." Police have arrested 250 paramilitary members since 2012, including at least 42 people accused of killings. However, none were convicted. Proof of impunity: When researchers looked into 512 investigations involving violations, only three people had been charged. On March 6, several casas de pique were discovered, and President Juan Manuel Santos claimed that a special intervention would address the city's security problems.

There is no adequate assistance for victims, inadequate temporary shelters, delays in humanitarian aid, a failure to protect victims' property from destruction or occupation, and a failure to protect Buenaventura residents from the paramilitaries. On Sept. 14, 2013, following a citywide march led by a local Catholic bishop, a 23-year-old man's head was found on the soccer field where the march had concluded. The rest of his body parts were scattered through nearby neighborhoods — and when his family sought justice, they were forced to flee the city because of death threats.

HRW outlined intervening steps the government should take, which include maintaining an uninterrupted police presence; establishing an independent commission and special team of prosecutors to evaluate and investigate the problem of disappearances; and vigorously investigating officials who've tolerated or colluded with paramilitary successor groups.

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