Anti-poverty rebellion shuts down Colombia’s largest port city

A march in Buenaventura on May 21.
June 2, 2017

A rebellion has been raging in Buenaventura - Colombia’s largest port city - since May 16, when residents decided to embark on massive anti-government marches to demand an end to chronic state neglect and abandonment, corruption, crime and armed conflict.

The government’s inability to attend to protesters’ demands has only spurred an escalation of protests that have shown no signs of calming, even despite a ban on public demonstrations.

Following a breakdown in talks between Buenaventura’s Civic Committee and the government on May 24, citizens blockaded the port.

The ongoing blockade of the port is costing the government almost $55 million a day in missed royalties as port authorities have been forced to suspend all commercial activity. The port is responsible for half of Colombia’s imports and 5% of the country’s exports.

Poverty

The inhabitants of the city are furious the port delivers an annual $2 billion to the national treasury, but only 3% of that money ends up in Buenaventura. Meanwhile, the city goes from one humanitarian crisis to another.

The city has long suffered from extreme poverty: half of Buenaventura’s 400,000 residents have no public access to safe drinking water; 62% of its inhabitants are without a job; the city’s hospital has been closed for two years, and is not planned to be open again until the end of 2017; and of every 1000 babies who are born, 27 die before their first birthday, mainly due to starvation.

Furthermore, Buenaventura suffers from extreme violence related to drug trafficking and corruption levels considered exceptional even for Colombian standards: the city’s three former mayors are in prison for corruption, the current mayor is under investigation, and even the former prison director is in prison for corruption.

Instead of the police, the paramilitary Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) controls the city, assassinating anyone challenging the group’s authority.

In response, protesters have called on the Colombian government to create an exclusive fund to tackle pressing public needs. The protesters have established eight points that they want the national government to help address:

  • quality healthcare and hospitals with secondary and tertiary care capacities
  • quality and relevant education
  • water and basic environmental health
  • our territory- because this territory is ours
  • healthy environment and the preservation of our natural wealth
  • dignified employment and a decent life for our working population
  • justice and attention for the victims of violence
  • the right to recreation and spaces for leisure, sport and culture.

Repression

Since the ban on protests following the violent repression of protests on May 19, complaints about unprovoked police brutality have multiplied. Social and religious leaders have been urging for calm to prevent an outright revolt.

Locals have filed more than 100 complaints about police brutality at the local Ombudsman’s Office, claiming that the feared ESMAD riot police unit has been shooting at unarmed and peaceful protesters and attacking neighbourhoods, El Pais reported.

Additionally, the ESMAD has been accused of aiming at protesters’ bodies when firing teargas grenades to disperse street protests.

Buenaventura protest spokesperson Narcilo Rocero said on May 29 that up to then there had been 80 injuries during the strike.

Rocero denounced the heavy-handed tactics being used by ESMAD “where they’re entering homes, and gassing the population.

“We don’t understand the drastic repression against a population that has some of the greatest social problems in the country.”

The latest escalation in Buenaventura adds to a series of ongoing strikes, major anti-government protests and ongoing social unrest over the past few weeks, overwhelming the national government that has failed to reach agreement with any of the striking sectors.

[Compiled from Colombia Reports.]

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