Torture houses. Dismemberment. Kids as young as 10 recruited into the illegally armed groups. Sexual violence rife. Innocent people killed. A population terrorized.
When people read my recently released novel, A Reluctant Warrior, set in in the largely Afro-Colombian port city of Buenaventura, they inevitably ask if any of this can be true. Sadly, the answer is yes.
I vividly remember when I first visited Buenaventura a decade ago as a human rights researcher. We made our way through the most violent neighborhoods where groups of young men hung out on the corners supposedly playing dominoes. Clearly monitoring everyone entering and leaving. Streets with names like Manhattan and San Francisco were known as “places of no return”. They marked the border between barrios controlled and fought over by the different illegal armed groups.
My guides pointed down an empty road. One of the paramilitary torture houses was reportedly down there. Dozens of people I interviewed over the years confirmed the existence of several homes in Buenaventura used explicitly to torture and even dismember people. I can still recall one kid who lived in the notorious block telling me of the screams that kept him up at night.
The young people of Buenaventura have always been what has impacted me the most. I remember one afternoon when I was interviewing a group of young people ranging from 11 to 18. None of them wanted to be part of the violence but they were trapped in the middle of it. Jairo, a bright 16-year old, told of how his cousin who had moved out of Buenaventura for a few years came back to visit his family. Neighborhood demarcation had changed. He took the wrong street and it cost him his life. He was killed before his 19th birthday because he accidently crossed into another barrio.
Martha, 15, told me of how one of the girls from her barrio who had dated a member of the guerrillas was taken by the paramilitary, gang raped and killed. Her naked body was hung up in the community with a warning etched in blood across her stomach for all to see.
I’ve also always been in awe of the courage displayed by the local population. Men, women and children of all ages and educations who risk their safety – even their lives – to speak up to the violence that has plagued Buenaventura for far too long. Indeed, I wrote A Reluctant Warrior to both shine a light on the ongoing violence and abuse but also to celebrate the brave people fighting against it.
Today, a decade since I first visited Buenaventura, the levels of violence have improved but the underlying causal factors remain largely unchanged.
Back in March, 2014, after police reported finding several “chop-up sites” in Buenaventura where victims had been dismembered, President Juan Manuel Santos announced a “special intervention” to improve public security and dismantle paramilitary successor groups there.
Subsequently, the levels of violence have improved, with homicide rates dropping from 990 when I was first there in 2007 to 28 n 2014 and 4 in 2016 and forced displacements reducing from 24,110 in 2014 to 5,453 in 2016. Forty-three cases of sexual violence were reported in 2014 and 9 cases in 2016.
Nevertheless, the underlying factors that fuel violence have not changed at all.
Despite hosting the country’s largest port, Buenaventura has long suffered extreme poverty due to rampant corruption and state neglect. Half of Buenaventura’s 400,000 residents do not have access to drinking water.
According to a 2017 report by the National Planning Department, 64% of the urban population and 91% of the rural population are considered as living in poverty.
The report also found that Buenaventura has a 62% unemployment rate, compared to the national rate of 9.42% The difference is striking and speaks for itself.
I remember being struck by the smell in some areas of Buenaventura where there is no sewerage system and ramshackle houses are built on stilts over garbage and sewerage-laden water. This has not changed. To date, many areas of Buenaventura still do not have functioning sewerage system.
Back in May communities in Buenaventura declared a strike in protest at the government’s ongoing failure to respond to this poverty and violence.
Instead of listening to the communities’ demands the government sent in the feared Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) who reportedly used excessive force against the peaceful demonstrators.
Buenaventura also continues to be a strategically important place for narco-trafficking and the paramilitary successor groups, the Urabeños, Empresa, and Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) continue to control many of the neighborhoods and restrict residents’ movement.
In my novel, the protagonist’s younger brother, who is only 12 years old, is recruited by the paramilitary group to spy on ‘enemy’ neighborhoods. I’d love to say this was fiction, but in reality, Buenaventura still has one of the highest rates of recruitment of children into illegally armed groups in Colombia. It starts with simple things like getting kids to watch who enters and leaves certain neighborhoods and escalates from there. With very little chances of formal employment, young people are vulnerable to this type of recruitment.
As A Reluctant Warrior is launched, I’d love to be able to say that things have completely changed in Buenaventura. That the violence that this thriller depicts is pure fiction. But that is not the case. While the story is fictitious, the issues it portrays are not. The depiction of the horror that far too many innocent people in Buenaventura have faced is all too real. While there have undoubtedly been some improvements in the levels of violence over the past decade, the underlying causes, such as narco-trafficking, the presence of illegally armed groups, extreme poverty and lack of legal employment remain the same.
I hope the book serves as a warning of the kind of violence that could easily re-engulf Buenaventura if these underlying factors are not adequately dealt with.
Kelly Brooke Nicholls is an author and human rights and humanitarian expert with 15 years senior leadership experience working in NGOs, including several years as a human rights investigator in Colombia and then as Executive Director of the US Office on Colombia (USOC). She wrote her international thriller novel, A Reluctant Warrior, to highlight the impact of the Colombian conflict on ordinary citizens and to celebrate the brave men and women who risk everything to stand up to the violence. You can find out more about Kelly and the novel at her website or purchase it here.