BUENAVENTURA, Colombia — Officers wade through rows of abandoned wooden homes teetering above a mangrove-cloaked river – one of the key channels used by gangs to move drugs and weapons through this long-neglected swath of Colombia’s Pacific coast.
Each step for them is a reminder: Control here remains not with the law, but with those whose names are spoken in whispers in their city. Los Shottas and Los Espartanos.
The two gangs are the latest to lay siege to Buenaventura, Colombia’s busiest port and the crown jewel of narcotrafficking routes, the jump point from which drugs pour out to the rest of the world.
Now, they’re among a growing set of armed groups lining up to negotiate peace deals with Colombia’s new government.
Upon his historic election last year, Colombia’s rebel-turned-president Gustavo Petro promised to cement “total peace” and end one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. But as his government moves to fulfill that bold promise, Buenaventura has grown to exemplify the tangled mess the ex-rebel leader must unravel.
Petro aims to rewire how the South American nation addresses endemic violence, replacing military operations with social programs tackling the conflict’s roots, including poverty in violence-torn areas like Buenaventura. He’s also negotiating with the most powerful of Colombia’s mutating armed groups – from leftist guerrillas to smaller trafficking mafias – in an effort to get them to demobilize simultaneously.
More than a year since Petro took office, his “total peace” plan has inched forward. More than 31,000 armed fighters make up the militias that have come forward to begin peace talks, according to government estimates. Programs for the young people that gangs recruit are planned in Buenaventura and other cities. But the country’s most powerful armed groups have grown stronger, according to experts, and bloodshed between rival groups has skyrocketed.
Critics say the criminal groups are only taking advantage of ceasefires with the government. They describe strong criminal economies and law enforcement officials unable to pursue perpetrators. And many people, from victims to the armed groups seeking a deal, view Petro’s plan with distrust begot by decades of violence and failed promises.
“The idea behind ‘total peace’ is right on the money. You know, let’s look at the social issues behind these conflicts,” said Jeremy McDermott, co-founder of InSight Crime, a Colombia-based think tank. “The great challenge Petro faces is: How do you talk peace without strengthening these groups?”
No group is yet close to signing a full peace agreement. In Buenaventura, Los Shottas refuses to demobilize until “every armed group in Colombia sets down arms, too,” a delegate for the gang told The Associated Press.
“Do you know how many groups want to take control of Buenaventura? Tons,” said the man, who declined to give his name and spoke on condition that he be identified by his nom de guerre, Jeronimo. “And if they hand over their power, what will happen? Those groups are going to come and exterminate us.”
Across Colombia, decades of war between leftist guerrillas, rightwing paramilitaries, trafficking groups and the government have left more than 9.5 million people – nearly 20% of the population – as victims of forced displacement, homicide, sexual violence and more.
In Buenaventura, turf wars have bred a particularly brutal conflict, making the city one of the world’s most violent. Homicide, kidnapping, torture and sexual abuse are commonplace. So are mass graves and “chop houses,” where gangs dismember enemies, letting their screams echo through neighborhoods.
The names and faces of victims are painted on city walls, and along the main throughway, a sign surrounded by white crosses reads: “Death can’t be our only hope.” Young men perch on motorcycles on street corners, watching the territories their gangs control. On Buenaventura’s jungled fringes, rival groups wait to seize their part of the city – police say there’s so many, they’ve lost count.
Residents are quick to say bloodshed has touched every soul in the city of 450,000 — most of all, young people.
Lupe, a 57-year-old lifelong Buenaventura resident, knows this all too well. She lost her son and granddaughter to the gangs first.
Cristian was 25, working as an inspector of coffee, bananas and avocados in the city’s port when he refused to let one of Los Shottas’ drug shipment through — he feared losing one of the legal jobs available to young people here, Lupe said.
She watched as threats to kill him and kidnap his daughter piled in. Over three years, they grew so grisly that Cristian knew they had to leave. He fled to the United States by night, carrying only small backpacks for him and his daughter, now 5.
Lupe, who tried for the better part of two decades to shield her son from the city’s criminal underworld, hasn’t seen them since last year, but takes solace in knowing they’re safe.
“Here, young people have no peace, they have no harmony or calm,” said Lupe, who spoke to AP on condition that only her first name be used, for fear of gang retribution. “This here, our territory, it’s a time bomb.”
The young people who lack opportunities and are forcibly recruited into gangs are equal parts victims and victimizers, many here say.
“They don’t choose it, they’re forced into it,” said Rubén Darío Jaramillo Montoya, bishop of Buenaventura. “They’re poor, they’ve never known another reality. Violence envelops them … and then they can’t leave.”
As part of the “total peace” plan, programs geared toward recruitment will be rolled out in cities with the highest rates of violence and poverty, including Buenaventura, government adviser Carolina Hoyos told AP. She described them as fundamental to the overall picture.
Young People in Peace will give monthly stipend of a million pesos, around $250, to 100,000 Colombians ages of 14 to 28 “linked or at the risk of being linked” to criminal groups, Hoyos said. They’ll be required to seek education and carry out some form of social work.
In May, Petro said: “There will be thousands of young people we will pay not to kill, for not participating in violence, for studying.”
But some question whether the program’s timeline — lasting between six and 18 months — is enough to be effective.
The Colombian government has long worked to get criminal groups to set down arms, and in 2016 was hailed for signing a peace pact with the country’s most powerful guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Much of the accords centered on similar social programs and reintegration opportunities for rebels.
It earned then-President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize for “bringing the world’s longest running civil war to an end.”
But the calm that followed was short-lived.
As authorities failed to carry out the agreement and seize control of territories where FARC rebels once roamed, a slew of mutating mafias warred to take their place. Bloodshed roared back.
When Petro entered office last year, the government restarted peace talks with the country’s final remaining guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has been in armed political resistance since 1964. Last month, ELN and Colombia began a six-month cease-fire as part of the process toward a longer peace deal.
The populist’s past may be helping things along – Petro was once a member of the now-defunct urban M-19 guerrilla group, which demobilized and formed a leftist political party in the ’90s, his entrance into politics. But some believe his role in the rebel group, charges of ties to drug traffickers and other scandals are hurdles in getting his historically conservative government onboard.
Still, his message has rippled out to armed groups that are less political and more interested solely in Colombia’s drug and other illegal trades. For a year, Los Shottas and Los Espartanos have held dialogues brokered by the Catholic Church and the government, and have had on-and-off cease-fires.
The Los Shottas delegate who spoke to AP said its leaders are open to peace. Jeronimo would not say whether they would be willing to end all illegal activities, only that they’d reduce extortion, looting and clashes.
“Buenaventura is tired of so much violence, tired of so much bloodshed,” he said.
Jeronimo would not detail what Los Shottas would get out of demobilizing other than “the tranquility of the people.” But those brokering the talks told AP gang leaders want reduced prison sentences for their crimes.
He said they hope to generate trust “not with words, but through actions.”
But in Buenaventura, trust is in short supply.
Three months ago, Lupe was still reeling from seeing her son and granddaughter fleeing when she said armed men from rival gang Los Espartanos tried to poach her 16-year-old nephews for their ranks.
She described them waiting outside the young men’s home and beating them. Now, she’s scrambling to get them out of the city.
“We can’t sleep at night,” she said. “When there are these truces, they don’t kill with bullets, but they do disappear people.”
Some, like Nora Castillo, worry the groups aren’t negotiating in earnest, saying they see cease-fires and peace programs as a “convenience” to grow in strength.
“If we’re just talking about logistics, about the reality, no group is going to stop extorting because they’re earning a million pesos,” Castillo said of the planned stipend for young people.
Castillo is a leader of Buenaventura’s “humanitarian space,” a former red zone transformed with the help of human rights groups as a place for community, safety and activism. But Castillo said she often receives death threats and leaves home with government bodyguards — the gangs’ presence is still felt there.
Data show that’s true not only in Buenaventura but across Colombia: In the past year, armed groups have expanded territorial control, sources of income and recruitment, according to a report by the think tank Ideas for Peace Foundation. While fights with law enforcement have dipped, warring between rival groups has only risen. Kidnappings have risen by 77% and extortion by 15%.
“One of the great advantages of sitting down and talking with the government is that the security forces find themselves handcuffed in pursuing you,” said McDermott, of InSight Crime.
Government adviser Hoyos would not respond to AP’s questions about whether the administration trusts the armed groups in negotiations. She emphasized instead that officials trust the process.
For Lupe, the prospect for peace — however slim – is all she has left.
Every day, she walks past a clothesline where her son and granddaughters’ shirts still hang without a wrinkle, one year after they fled. She hopes to see them again, in a different Buenaventura.
“Our dream is that one day things will change, this conflict we have will end,” she said. “I try to survive, try to keep going for the next generation.”