Two summers ago, drug gangs, leftist rebels and right-wing militias traded mortar and machine-gun fire daily as they vied for control of this steamy port city.
Teens were paid $200 a month -- a king’s ransom in this impoverished community -- to act as lookouts for narcos. Armed groups fought it out in the neighborhoods and trash-strewn inlets from which 60-foot speedboats departed for Central America and Mexico with illicit drug loads.
With an average of three killings a day, Buenaventura’s homicide rate was among the highest on the planet.
It was at that point that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe put his foot down, deploying hundreds of additional police and soldiers to patrol the streets and monitor cargo movements at Colombia’s largest Pacific port.
And to offer more options to residents, the government boosted spending on development and infrastructure. One effort involves moving poor residents from seaside shacks in crime-ridden areas into 3,000 new housing units. The programs are partially backed by USAID, the U.S. State Department’s development agency.
The move to reestablish order took a step forward this week when authorities announced the discovery of $6 million concealed in a shipment of sodium sulfate at the port here.
Officials say the seizure Tuesday of hundred-dollar bills hidden in bulk chemicals used to manufacture detergent was the latest sign that Colombia’s effort to retake control of this once hyper-violent city is meeting with some success.
In all, the armed forces have recovered $28.6 million in cash this month aboard cargo containers arriving from Mexico.
So far this year, they’ve also impounded a record 30 tons of cocaine at the port or in its immediate vicinity. Since April, Colombia’s armed forces have arrested 26 port workers and eight members of the port police on suspicion of involvement with the narcos.
And in a related action, police in Mexico last week found $11 million hidden in sulfates aboard a Buenaventura-bound ship docked in Manzanillo, the port where 23 tons of Colombian cocaine was seized in 2007.
The recoveries point to effective information-sharing among Colombian, Mexican and U.S. counter-narcotics agencies. They also indicate a rupture in the inner sanctum of Colombian and Mexican drug cartels for whom the Buenaventura-Manzanillo shipping route has been a key corridor for the last decade.
The cash busts reflect just one facet of the Colombian government’s multi-pronged effort to crack down on drug traffickers and provide economic alternatives to the city’s 400,000 residents.
Helping in the push has been U.S. law enforcement and foreign aid agencies, which have provided technical, intelligence and economic support.
The catalyst, said Jay Bergman, the Andean regional director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, was the November 2007 seizure in Mexico of 23 tons of cocaine, which transformed spiraling lawlessness in Buenaventura into “an international matter.”
“The Colombian and U.S. governments see this as a test case for what better security and economic development can do for the Pacific coast of Colombia,” he said. “If we succeed, it bodes well for Colombia’s security initiative. If we fail, conversely, it’s a harbinger of an immeasurable challenge.”
The added police presence has cut the homicide rate to one-third of what it was two years ago, and city streets that until recently were deserted after dark are showing signs of life again, said Mayor Jose Felix Ocoro.
“We are showing that Buenaventura can be a viable city, though there still is a lot more to be done,” Ocoro said.
Public works projects include a doubling of the port area, and construction of a new four-lane highway to connect Buenaventura to Cali, the nearest big city, to improve commerce.
Urban development works include a mile-long seafront to attract tourists. Among USAID projects are farm cooperatives to grow bananas and other projects that combined have created at least 2,100 local jobs. Education programs are being aimed at reducing the high rate of illiteracy.
The government’s long-term goals may be difficult to accomplish in light of Colombia’s resourceful and tenacious drug traffickers, who have shown the ability to adapt to government interdiction efforts.
Ocoro said efforts to stimulate the economy still leave much to be desired. He said the government should subsidize diesel fuel to rejuvenate commercial fishing and an environmentally responsible timber industry. The city also badly needs an expanded airport.
“If we are to see pacification of the region, it will be self-sustaining only if people are given hopes of a productive future. That sort of vision is still lacking,” Ocoro said.
No one in the government is yet declaring victory in the battle for Buenaventura and there are frequent reminders of drug-fueled violence. Also, the 34th Front of the leftist rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, carries out occasional attacks in the region.
In late July, assassins on a motorcycle killed Wilson Vinasco, head of the port’s largest freight handling company, and his 15-year-old daughter, in nearby Cali. Law enforcement sources say the executive had just fired a high-level employee for suspected involvement with drug traffickers.
And last week, three grenades were tossed outside a national police outpost in Buenaventura, wounding three officers. Officials believe the attack was carried out by elements of FARC.
Still, an official in Colombia’s armed forces, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, insisted the recent busts have “cracked the facade of the narco’s untouchability.”
“The narcos are finally getting the idea that we aren’t going to allow what went on before with impunity,” the official said.