A War Without CorpsesContinue reading...
By Elizabeth Dickinson
Aug 1 2011, 7:00 AM ET
In Colombia's most violent city, crime statistics get better even as the situation gets worse
BUENAVENTURA, Colombia—When you walk down the streets of Colombia's largest port city—just four years ago the most violent urban area in the country—you need not worry much about crime. Taxi drivers leave their doors unlocked and their windows down, not fearing carjacking or theft. Women walk with their purses carelessly thrown behind their shoulders, out of sight. Hotel doors get by with only shoddy doorknob locks. There is an air of safety in the seaside park, where families enjoy humid evenings scattered between cotton candy venders and live comedians. The only apparent conflict to be found is between neighboring coastal bars, blasting competing beats of Colombian rap for their patrons.
By all outward appearances, Buenaventura has been rehabilitated from its darkest hour, when it was essentially an urban combat zone. Since 2007, when the city claimed the country's highest murder rate, homicides have come down more than six-fold. Then, the primary cause of death here was gun violence. Now, residents say that street confrontations are rare.
Yet behind the calm that seems to reign, Buenaventura is still at war. This city and the neighboring towns and countryside on the Pacific coast have become a new epicenter of Colombia's four-decades-long conflict. And here in the city's countless neighborhoods, armed groups are still fighting block by block for control. "If you ask the authorities, they will tell you [the city] is better -- that the homicide rates are way down," says Victor Hugo Vidal, a leader of the local chapter of the Process of Black Communities in Colombia, which monitors community security. "But for us [living here], during the last 10 years, there has been no change."
That contradiction--between the statistics and the perception of safety on the ground--puts Buenaventura at the center of a national debate ongoing in Colombia today about whether security is getting worse again, after a decade of improvement. Citizens across the country have raised concerns about a rise in crime and armed gangs. But the government believes that the country's security on the whole continues to improve; and indeed, many criminal indicators support that case. On May 14, for example, President Juan Manuel Santos cited Buenaventura as a city where homicide rates had been spectacularly lowered.
But in Buenaventura, something terrible is happening that might explain why, even though the statistics look good, life on the ground is awful. What's changed in this small coastal town is one thing: "the modality of the violence," says Vidal. Aware of the government's push to lower homicide rates, armed groups here have turned their fight into an invisible war. "Where they used to assassinate, now they disappear," Vidal continues. According to PCN's count, at least 378 people have gone missing in the last four years--probably taken to the sea and killed. Those presumed deaths won't show up in the official numbers, allowing both the authorities and the criminal gangs to claim victory in the latest stage of this dark war.
Originally posted at www.elizabeth-dickinson.com