Years of violence have driven more than 5 million Colombians from their homes, generating the second largest population of internally displaced people in the world. Nowhere in Colombia is the problem of forced displacement worse today than in Buenaventura, a largely Afro-Colombian port on the country's Pacific coast. For each of the past three years, Buenaventura has led all Colombian municipalities in the numbers of newly displaced persons, according to government figures. In 2013, more than 13,000 Buenaventura residents fled their homes. Left-wing guerrillas operate in Buenaventura's rural areas and have historically been a major cause of displacement in the area. Currently, however, the violence and displacement in Buenaventura is concentrated in its urban center, where guerrillas have virtually no presence, and 90 percent of the municipality's population lives. Human Rights Watch visited Buenaventura’s urban center in November 2013 to investigate what was causing massive displacement there, and found a city where entire neighborhoods were dominated by powerful paramilitary "successor groups"—known as the Urabeños and the Empresa—who restrict residents' movements, recruit their children, extort their businesses, and routinely engage in horrific acts of violence against anyone who defies their will.
The successor groups have "disappeared" scores—and possibly hundreds—of Buenaventura residents over the past several years. They dismember their victims and dump the body parts in the bay and along its mangrove-covered shores, or bury them in hidden graves, according to residents and officials. In several neighborhoods, residents report the existence of casas de pique—or "chop-up houses"—where the groups slaughter their victims. Several residents report having heard people scream and plea for mercy as they were being dismembered alive. In March 2014, after criminal investigators found bloodstains in two suspected "chop-up houses" in the city, the police said they had identified several locations where perpetrators had dismembered victims alive before tossing them in the sea.
More than 150 people who were reported to have gone missing in Buenaventura between January 2010 and December 2013 are presumed by officials to have been abducted and "disappeared"—twice as many as in any other municipality in Colombia. Interviews with authorities and residents, as well as official reports, strongly suggest that the actual number of people who have been abducted and killed by paramilitary successor groups in the city is significantly higher.
One of the main sources of underreporting is the fear of reprisals. For example, one resident told Human Rights Watch he heard the screams of a man he believed was being dismembered, but did not report the crime. "No matter how much screaming you hear, the fear prevents you from doing anything," he said. "People know where the 'chop-up houses' are but do not do anything about it because the fear is absolute."
The authorities have not protected the population from successor groups. Residents from parts of the city where the Empresa or Urabeños were strong said the police presence in their neighborhoods was scarce. Even more troublingly, several inhabitants reported witnessing members of the police meet with the successor group in their neighborhoods. Overall, there is a profound distrust in authorities and a pervasive sense of defenselessness in the face of the groups' constant abuses.
Police report having arrested more than 250 paramilitary successor group members in Buenaventura since January 2012, including at least 42 people accused of killings. However, impunity remains the norm for abuses against Buenaventura residents. Prosecutors have opened more than 2,000 investigations into cases of disappearances and forced displacement committed by a range of actors in Buenaventura over the past two decades, but none has led to a conviction. In 512 of those investigations, prosecutors provided information to Human Rights Watch about whether anyone had even been charged. With the exception of three cases, no one had been charged.
Authorities in Buenaventura have not provided adequate assistance to victims of displacement after they flee their homes. Officials' efforts to assist displaced people, required under Colombian law, have been plagued by inadequate temporary shelter, delays in delivering humanitarian aid, and the failure to protect victims' abandoned property from destruction or occupation by successor groups.
Some officials have downplayed Buenaventura's security problems by pointing to a recent drop in its official homicide rate, which fell from a nation-leading 121 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006 to 48 per 100,000 in 2013. However, these figures are not reliable given the high number of "disappearances" in Buenaventura, which are not reported as homicides. Moreover, the level of displacement in Buenaventura has increased from an average of 9,500 people per year between 2004 and 2008, to nearly 12,000 per year between 2009 and 2013, belying any claim that the overall security situation in the municipality has significantly improved.
The government's failure to effectively protect Buenaventura residents has not been due to lack of knowledge of the dire situation there. In 2009, Colombia's Constitutional Court found that the fundamental rights of the country's displaced Afro-Colombian population were being "massively and continuously ignored," and identified Buenaventura as an emblematic case. Since then, the Ombudsman's Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) has issued five reports warning of a range of imminent abuses against the city's population. In November 2013, after paramilitary successor groups displaced several thousands of people in the city over the course of a week, the national ombudsman traveled to Buenaventura with UN representatives and said the city was experiencing a "humanitarian crisis."
On March 6, 2014, after a regional police commander announced the discovery of several "chop-up sites" in Buenaventura, President Juan Manuel Santos said the government would carry out a special intervention to address the city's security problems. Along with increasing the presence of the security forces in Buenaventura, government officials also promised to take measures to improve socio-economic conditions there.
Many residents of Buenaventura have lost all faith in the ability of the government to protect them. On Sept. 13, 2013, hundreds of them participated in a march for peace led by the local Catholic bishop. The march wound through several of the city's neighborhoods and ended on a soccer field, where the participants prayed for an end to the violence. The next day, a 23-year-old man's head appeared on the field, with parts of his body scattered through nearby neighborhoods. When his family sought justice for the murder, they began receiving death threats and fled the city, joining the ranks of Buenaventura's displaced. (HRW, March 20)