(Bogotá) – Paramilitary successor groups have abducted and disappeared scores, and possibly hundreds, of residents of the largely Afro-Colombian port of Buenaventura, Human Rights Watch said in a report and video released today. Thousands of residents have been fleeing their homes in the city each year, making Buenaventura the municipality with the highest level of ongoing forced displacement in Colombia today.
The 30-page report, “The Crisis in Buenaventura: Disappearances, Dismemberment, and Displacement in Colombia’s Main Pacific Port,” documents how many of the city’s neighborhoods are dominated by powerful criminal groups that commit widespread abuses, including abducting and dismembering people, sometimes while still alive, then dumping them in the sea. The groups maintain “chop-up houses” (casas de pique) where they slaughter victims, according to witnesses, residents, the local Catholic church, and some officials.
“The situation in Buenaventura is among the very worst we’ve seen in many years of working in Colombia and the region,” said 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.”
Paramilitary successor groups emerged in Buenaventura after the deeply flawed official demobilization of right-wing paramilitary organizations a decade ago. Currently, the Urabeños and the Empresa are the main successor groups operating in the port city. The groups restrict residents’ movement – attacking people if they cross invisible borders between areas controlled by rival factions – recruit children, extort businesses, and routinely engage in horrific acts of violence against anyone who defies their will.
More than 150 people who were reported to have gone missing in Buenaventura between January 2010 and December 2013 are presumed by officials to have been abducted and “disappeared,” twice as many as in any other municipality in Colombia. Interviews with authorities and residents, as well as official reports, strongly suggest that the actual number of people who have been abducted and killed by paramilitary successor groups in the city is significantly higher. One major cause of underreporting is the widespread fear of reprisals.
Buenaventura residents told Human Rights Watch that they had heard people scream and plead for mercy as they were being dismembered in “chop-up houses.” In March 2014, after criminal investigators found bloodstains in two suspected “chop-up houses,” the police announced the discovery of several locations in Buenaventura where victims had been dismembered alive.
“In Buenaventura, there are chop-up houses,” said Monsignor Héctor Epalza Quintero, the Catholic bishop of Buenaventura. “People say that in the middle of the night you can hear the screams of people saying ‘Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me! Don’t be evil!’ These people are basically being chopped up alive.”
In 2013, violence drove more than 19,000 people from their homes in Buenaventura, more than in any other municipality in the country, according to official numbers. Decades of violence and armed conflict have forced more than 5 million Colombians to flee their homes, giving the country the second largest population of internally displaced people in the world. Buenaventura also led all Colombian municipalities in the numbers of newly displaced people in 2011 and 2012. Displacement caused by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas has also been a serious problem in Buenaventura’s less-populated rural areas, according to official numbers.
People living in parts of the city where the paramilitary successor groups have a strong grip reported that the police presence in their neighborhoods was scarce. Several residents reported witnessing members of the police meet with the successor group in their neighborhoods.
Prosecutors have opened more than 2,000 investigations into cases of “disappearances” and forced displacement in Buenaventura committed by a range of groups or individuals over the past two decades, but none has led to a conviction. No one had even been charged in 509 of the 512 investigations for which prosecutors provided Human Rights Watch information about the status of the investigation.
“There is a pervasive sense of defenselessness among Buenaventura residents, who have seen how the authorities continually fail to protect them from atrocities or bring to justice those responsible,” Vivanco said.
On March 6, after a regional police commander announced the discovery of several “chop-up sites” in Buenaventura, President Juan Manuel Santos said the government would intervene to address the city’s security problems. Along with increasing the presence of the security forces, President Santos promised to take measures to improve socio-economic conditions in the city.
Human Rights Watch outlined several steps the government should take to ensure the effectiveness of any intervention in Buenaventura. These include:
- Maintain an uninterrupted police presence in neighborhoods were paramilitary successor groups are most active;
- Establish an independent commission to evaluate the problem of “disappearances” in Buenaventura and develop a plan to curb the abuses and punish those responsible;
- Create a special team of prosecutors exclusively tasked with investigating “disappearances” in Buenaventura; and
- Vigorously investigate officials credibly alleged to have tolerated or colluded with paramilitary successor groups there.
“President Santos made an important commitment to address the human rights disaster in Buenaventura,” Vivanco said. “To be successful, the government needs to ensure accountability for abuses in Buenaventura, and dismantle the brutal paramilitary successor groups terrorizing the city.”
Testimony of Buenaventura residents contained in the report and video include:
“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.” – Buenaventura resident.
“They’re taking young people off of buses in order to take them away to dismember them…. You live corralled, like a prisoner.” – 17-year-old Buenaventura resident.
“What I want is for someone to tell me, ‘Here are the remains of your son.’ It’s a really difficult thing that I wouldn’t wish on any mother.” – Mother of a “disappearance” victim in Buenaventura.
“They take the homes and become the owners. And who is going to complain? If you complain, they’ll kill you.” – Displaced Buenaventura resident.
“Here in the region of Buenaventura we don’t have any hope…. The violence is affecting all of us.” – Mario Riascos, Afro-Colombian community leader in Buenaventura.