Mention to anyone in Colombia’s capital, Bogota, that you are planning a trip to the port city of Buenaventura, on the Pacific Coast, and you will likely encounter stern warnings and looks of disbelief. Buenaventura holds a special, troubled place in the Colombian psyche. For decades the inability of the federal government to tame the hyper-violent city — despite efforts by the wildly popular and controversial president Alvaro Uribe — typifies the disruptive power of what has become a zone of insurgency — Colombia’s “wild frontier.” As recently as a few years ago, drug traffickers and right-wing militants fought daily turf wars in the city’s slums while guerrillas and paramilitaries battled for control of the sole access route to the city through the Andes. Although a massive military presence has dramatically improved security, even today skirmishes are not uncommon along the main road into the city, where the guerrillas now fight U.S.-trained Colombian government forces.
Ultimately the battle for Buenaventura is about control. The city of Buenaventura (population 325,000), home to one of Colombia’s largest and most profitable seaports, is also close to the country’s most productive coca fields. This strategic location accounts for the city’s shadow economy of illegal cocaine exports and imported black market dollars, which flow along with regulated products like coffee and sugar cane. External forces (the central government, shareholders of Buenaventura’s privately owned port authority, the U.S. State Department) seek to regulate the city in order to ensure an uninterrupted flow of legal goods. At the same time, a parallel set of local players (guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug lords) prefers instead to maintain a status quo of informal instability that enables the transshipment of illegal drugs to markets in Western Europe and the United States.
But even as Buenaventurans work to improve their collective condition, they are caught in this tangled web of competing interests that exploit the city for profit (legal and illegal) yet fail to invest in the its future. Part of the problem is that many in the country perceive Buenaventura as peripheral. Physically, the city is remote — an island located at the western edge of the Andes. Economically, it is marginal — the profitable port is actually controlled by a private consortium of organizations located throughout the country — and 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. Ethnically, the city is about 85 percent Afro-Colombian — more than four times the national average of a population that is disproportionately disadvantaged in Colombia. Buenaventura is often compared disparagingly to cities of the African diaspora — or more accurately, to stereotypical notions of African cities — by federal, state, and even city officials charged with leading Buenaventura’s economic and urban development. Its divergence from normative urban ideals has contributed to its reputation as a city uniquely unable to improve its condition.
That is not to say that all of Buenaventura’s problems are external. Whenever the subject of corruption comes up, the locals are likely to tell one story in particular: the city’s mayor, José Felix Ocoró Minotta, one of the most prominent Afro-Colombian political leaders, was invited to Washington, for the inauguration of Barack Obama, but was denied a U.S. visa due to a criminal conviction on charges of corruption. Corruption, locals will tell you, is a way of life; it can make it hard not only to attend a U.S. presidential inauguration but also to guarantee basic municipal services. A case in point: Buenaventura is one of the rainiest cities on earth, yet the public water agency supplies water only for several hours in the morning and only to those homes (a minority) that are connected to the system.
The Colombian government has now given Buenaventura a special status to streamline actions, and avoid potential local corruption, as it struggles with complex and interconnected military, political, social and economic problems. One of the first projects undertaken through this effort is a new US$30 million development, initiated by the Colombian government and backed by USAID, that will relocate residents of Buenaventura’s coastal slum communities — comunas — to new inland developments. In Colombia the plan is being hailed as an innovation for coupling a “technical” team of architects and urban planners with a “social” team of social scientists. The goal is to provide transplanted communities with both new houses and new jobs — a bid to improve living standards, push drug-runners from the coast and make way for waterfront redevelopment. As with any instance of urban renewal, the move is emotionally loaded due to the residents’ hesitance to leave their homes by the sea — traditionally their source of economic activity.
Although living conditions in the comunas are undoubtedly bad, it is not clear that the proposed relocation will really improve the lives of the community. The new project is located miles from the city center, in an area with little access either to existing urban infrastructure or to the economic engine that is the sea. In fact, the development might actually worsen the situation for the local population. Due to its relative remoteness and socio-economic homogeneity, the new development might further segregate Buenaventura’s most vulnerable population. From a certain vantage, the population of comunas residents could be viewed as peripheral even to the project that purportedly seeks to improve their condition. The ultimate goal of the new development might be to “clean up” the coastal edges of Buenaventura’s urban island, replacing slums and narco-trafficking with waterfront hotels and tourism. Focusing in particular on the story of Comuna 3 and the government’s proposal to move it inland, we will now — in the slideshow that follows — look more closely at the urban, social, economic and political fabric of Buenaventura, through images, analyses and interviews.