Long plagued by poverty and neglect, the port city of Buenaventura on Colombia’s Pacific coast must now also grapple with the daily horrors of a relentless and escalating war between rival drug gangs.
Every day at noon, shops have their shutters lowered and the streets are deserted as residents scramble to safety before nightfall.
Those who can lock themselves behind iron gates. Others sought shelter in stilt shacks on unlit potholes or in zinc huts perched in stagnant water and filth.
“We are witnessing a new urban and territorial war in Buenaventura,” Juan Manuel Torres of the Colombian Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation told AFP.
“The situation has become very violent and out of control,” he said, as “Shottas” and “Spartanos” gangs battle for supremacy in the predominantly Afro-Colombian community.
With a population of nearly 400,000, Buenaventura saw 576 killings in the five-year period between 2017 and 2021, one of the highest urban homicide rates in one of the most violent countries in the world.
Last year, the town recorded 50 incidents of “enforced disappearances,” a vicious campaign of intimidation and extortion led by gangs.
Fear was palpable when AFP visited, as police patrolled cautiously, their guns drawn and pointed at crumbling buildings littered with plastic streets.
In the evening, a hearse arrived escorted and picked up a body full of bullets, abandoned in the open air.
In Buenaventura’s seedy John XXIII district, reports of violence are reported almost daily.
The gangs, armed with automatic weapons, clashed here for hours on August 30 in what the media dubbed a “night of terror.”
“The authority of the community is the Shottas and the Spartanos,” said Bishop Ruben Dario Jaramillo of Buenaventura.
“They are stronger than the government; the residents have no choice but to give in,” he told AFP.
According to Torres, what happened in Buenaventura showed “a total failure of the state.”
This allows the gangs to “absorb the population and recruit children with no future” in a city where 43 percent of the population is in poverty and one in three is unemployed, he said.
Community activist Wilmar Valencia Orozco said people were too scared to leave their homes – let alone their neighbours.
The most dangerous part is the “invisible border” between areas controlled by one gang or another.
“Young people with no history (with gangs) are kidnapped and killed just because they live in a certain neighborhood,” Orozco said.
Shottas and Spartanos emerged in late 2020 after a former cartel called “La Local” split in two.
Both have links to armed groups fighting to control illegal mining, drug crops and smuggling routes in the vast Colombian jungle.
“The backbone of their (gang’s) business is drug trafficking. Then there is micro-trafficking, extortion … and now there is the legal trade,” said Father Jaramillo.
According to Torres, the gangs have recently taken over the food trade in Buenaventura: “Eggs, cheese, fruit…no staple food escapes their control,” he said.
A doctor, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, pointed to the many empty shops.
“A lot of traders have to close. If you don’t pay, they’ll kill you,” he explained.
“In Buenaventura, the law is the law of the gang!”
One shop owner said he had to raise prices as gangsters extorted more and more protection money.
A taxi driver said: “There are two taxes here, the official tax and the street tax. The second one, we really feel it!”
Authorities say Shottas and Spartanos each have 400 to 600 members, with up to 1,000 in jail.
Lt. Col. Samuel Aguilar, a military official, said a major focus of their dispute was the criss-crossing waterways that lead to Buenaventura Bay for drug shipments.
Soldiers and police deployed in the city faced an uphill battle.
“Both gangs have huge logistical resources and a lot of little hands, ‘flies,'” Aguilar said of the kids doing nasty jobs for the gang and creating distractions.
“We can’t be anywhere at the same time,” the official added.
Colombia’s first leftist president, Gustavo Petro, expressed concern over the “serious situation of violence” in Buenaventura, which he blamed on decades of state neglect.
Petro visited the city this month as part of his “total peace” campaign, which includes offering gang members an alternative to jail time if they turn themselves in.
The president then announced that both gangs had expressed their willingness to negotiate.
“It’s their chance not to die or go to jail,” Torres said of the prospect of surrender.
Activist Orozco added: “They are tired of killing each other and hiding. They just want to enjoy their money.”