Colombia: New Killings, Disappearances in Pacific Port
Government Fails to Stop Criminal Groups’ Abuses
(Buenaventura) – Paramilitary successor groups are abducting, “disappearing,” and dismembering residents of the mostly Afro-Colombian port of Buenaventura, despite government measures announced a year ago to curb the violence, Human Rights Watch said today.
On March 6, 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. But new Human Rights Watch research shows alarming levels of abuses by the groups since the intervention began, including disappearances, sexual violence, and child recruitment. The groups have driven at least 6,900 residents from their homes since Santos’s announcement, with the municipality still having the highest rate of forced displacement in Colombia.
“A year has passed since the government announced it was going to take action in Buenaventura, and powerful criminal groups are still terrorizing residents,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Government measures have helped reduce violence, but the gangs’ brutal control over many neighborhoods remains fundamentally unchanged.”
Human Rights Watch visited Buenaventura last May and November and in February 2015, interviewing more than 70 abuse victims, their family members, public officials, and others.
The government increased the number of police, marines, prosecutors, and criminal investigators in Buenaventura, with some important results. In 2014, authorities arrested more than 280 alleged members of the Urabeños, Empresa, and Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), the three main paramilitary successor groups in Buenaventura. Between April and December, 96 homicides were officially reported, down from 150 over the same span in 2013, according to medical authorities.
Nevertheless, extortion remains rampant by paramilitary successor groups, which emerged after a deeply flawed official demobilization of right-wing paramilitary organizations a decade ago. Residents still risk attack if they cross “invisible borders” between neighborhoods disputed by rival groups. Children live under the threat of recruitment and sexual violence, thousands have fled, and people continue to be abducted and disappeared with impunity.
Prosecutors have opened investigations into at least 39 new cases of reported disappearances in Buenaventura since the government announced the intervention last March, bringing the total to 88 since 2013. Many cases go unreported, though, due to fear of reprisals and distrust of justice authorities.
Since March 2014, the dismembered remains of 16 people have been found in the city, at least 12 of whom appear to have been killed at some point after the government announced the intervention. This raises the number of dismembered bodies discovered there since 2013 to 32, though it is likely that more people suffered this fate over the past two years.
Paramilitary successor groups in Buenaventura have typically dumped the remains in the sea or buried them in hidden graves. Authorities have unearthed 18 bodies from hidden graves in the city since March 2014, at least 12 of which had been dismembered. On December 26, investigators exhumed a grave containing the dismembered remains of 28-year-old Jhon Eder Cerón, who had been missing for a week. His autopsy indicated he had been struck in the face with a machete-like object and dismembered while still alive.
On December 22, the day after two men went missing in the El Progreso neighborhood, investigators found an abandoned house in the area with three machetes and blood on the floor and walls. Three weeks later, authorities found hidden graves in the neighborhood and exhumed what prosecutors believe are the dismembered bodies of the two men.
Paramilitary successor groups torment disappearance victims’ families, telling them their loved one was “chopped up,” and warning them to keep quiet. Human Rights Watch documented three disappearances in which victims’ relatives fled Buenaventura in fear for their lives.
Between April and September, the latest month for which statistics are available, threats and violence in Buenaventura drove 13,682 residents from their homes, according to official data. More than 6,900 of these people reported that paramilitary successor groups displaced them. Most of the remaining displacement victims either did not report who was responsible or listed guerrillas. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas operate in less-populated rural areas of Buenaventura.
“The Attorney General’s Office has taken important steps to bolster investigations in Buenaventura, but they clearly have not been sufficient to ensure justice for disappearances and other serious abuses,” Vivanco said.
The Attorney General’s Office has adopted multiple measures to curb impunity in Buenaventura, including stationing eight additional prosecutors there, and sending investigators to the city to conduct sustained searches for the remains of disappeared people. This has led to important progress, such as arrests in two cases of dismemberment from April 2014, and the discovery of multiple hidden graves since November.
However, only one of the 23 prosecutors in Buenaventura is dedicated full-time to investigating disappearances. She is handling more than 400 such cases, some from more than a decade ago. As of February 2015, the prosecutor had obtained arrest warrants in just five of these cases. The rest are in the preliminary stage, meaning that no one has been charged, let alone convicted. As committed as the prosecutor is, the caseload prevents major advances in the investigations.
Impunity also remains the norm for other serious crimes in Buenaventura, including homicides, sexual violence, and forced displacement.
Residents from certain areas of the city reported that police presence in their neighborhoods is intermittent, leaving them at risk of abuse. Some people said they continue to distrust the police, believing that they have ties to the criminal groups.
Buenaventura has not established a shelter for displaced people, despite the high levels of displacement. Instead, the city has housed displaced people for weeks at a time in a sports coliseum, where, according to credible reports, they have lacked access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.
The government announced measures to ameliorate socio-economic conditions in Buenaventura as part of its intervention, but Human Rights Watch has not assessed the results of that effort.
“The Santos administration is a long way from fulfilling its promise to change conditions in Buenaventura,” Vivanco said. “Authorities must do a lot more to end the terror in Colombia’s main Pacific port and deliver justice for victims of abuse.”
Recommendations for Further Action
The Santos administration and Attorney General’s Office should adopt further measures to address violence and impunity in Buenaventura, including:
- Assign additional prosecutors and investigators to the prosecutor’s office in Buenaventura to work exclusively on disappearance cases; maintain sufficient specialized investigators in Buenaventura to continue searches for hidden graves based on all credible reports of their location; and establish a telephone line with justice officials in Bogotá, by which people can anonymously report information about hidden graves and disappearances. It is also critical to assign adequate staff to investigate cases of homicides, sexual violence, and forced displacement;
- Maintain an uninterrupted police presence in neighborhoods where paramilitary successor groups are active; and
- Establish a shelter in the city for displaced people to ensure their safety and provide dignified living conditions.
Terror and Impunity in Buenaventura
The following is a summary of the findings of new Human Rights Watch research on Buenaventura, including interviews with more than 30 abuse victims and their family members, 20 public officials, and two dozen community leaders, residents, and witnesses. Interviews were conducted in Buenaventura in May and November 2014 and in February 2015, and by telephone. Research also drew on government data, press accounts, and reports by international organizations.
The Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations into 44 cases of alleged disappearances that were reported to have occurred in Buenaventura in 2014 – four more than were reported in 2013. Of the 44 cases, at least 35 reportedly occurred after Santos announced the intervention. Prosecutors are investigating an additional four cases from January and February 2015.
Disappearances (by date of occurrence)
Source: Attorney General’s Office. The data shown above only includes cases investigated by the prosecutor in Buenaventura – and not by the specialized disappearance unit of the Attorney General’s Office – which may account for the fact that 43, rather than 44 cases are reported for 2014.
|Year||2010||2011||2012||2013||2014||Jan.-Feb. 20, 2015||Total|
|Reported Disappearances (by date of occurrence)||35||35||44||40||44||4||202|
Source: Attorney General’s Office. The data shown above refers to all the cases of disappearances since 2010 that are investigated by the Attorney General’s Office.
The actual number of disappearances in Buenaventura is likely much higher. Many victims’ families wait at least several months before reporting disappearances, or never report them, according to residents and justice officials.
Human Rights Watch documented eight disappearances in Buenaventura since the intervention. Some examples are:
- Pedro (pseudonym), a man in his 20s, who left his home one morning in mid-2014 for his work driving a motorcycle taxi. When he failed to return for lunch, his family searched for him in the area, without success. Four days later, a woman on a motorbike pulled up to Pedro’s house. From the street, and in a voice loud enough for neighbors to hear, she told his family to stop looking for him because he had been “chopped up.” That claim caused additional anguish for his family. A family member told Human Rights Watch that whenever Pedro had heard about other Buenaventura residents being dismembered, he would express fear of dying in such a horrible way;
- A teenage boy and a young man who were abducted one afternoon in mid-2014 as they rode with two other friends on motorbikes through a neighborhood, according to one of the victims’ families. Two days later, one of the families received a phone call in which they were told that their relative would be returned to them alive, but with broken ribs and feet. A few days later, the family received another phone call in which they were told not to look for their relative because “we killed him, chopped him up, and buried him.” The family begged the caller to return the body, to no avail; and
- A man named Enrique (pseudonym), who left his home one evening in mid-2014, telling his family he had received a call asking him to work on a construction job that night. Enrique never returned. A relative told Human Rights Watch that the family had been warned not to look for Enrique because he had been “chopped up.”
In addition to the disappearances Human Rights Watch documented, officials and residents provided the details of several other recent alleged cases. For example, the Ombudsman’s Office, a government institution dedicated to protecting human rights, reported the case of a 21-year-old man who went missing on January 10, 2015, and was last seen in the Caldas neighborhood, where the Empresa operates. A religious worker told Human Rights Watch that three people from the neighborhoods where he works have been disappeared since the intervention was announced, including a boy in his early teens who was forcibly removed from a bus one day in late 2014 and remains missing.
It is difficult to determine the motives behind the disappearances, given that so few cases have been fully investigated. Based on interviews with officials, residents, and victims’ families, however, it appears that a common denominator in many cases is that the victims somehow got caught in the turf war between the Urabeños and Empresa, whether by threatening the groups’ interests, disobeying their orders, or being suspected of ties to the rival gang. Reasons for being targeted could range from refusing forced recruitment to crossing an “invisible border” between neighborhoods dominated by enemy groups.
Dismemberment and Hidden Graves
Since 2013, the dismembered remains of 32 people have been found in Buenaventura – 12 in 2013, 14 in 2014, and 6 in 2015, according to the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences (INML). (This number could increase as authorities complete autopsies of six additional bodies found in graves in January and February.) Forensic examiners told Human Rights Watch that in some of these cases, they determined the victims had been dismembered alive.
Sixteen of the 20 dismembered bodies found in 2014 and 2015 – including the remains of several women and children – were found after Santos announced the intervention, according to INML. Seven of the 16 have been fully identified by authorities, all of whom were killed after the intervention was announced. There is strong indication that of the remaining nine victims, five went missing in mid-2014 and in December – also after the intervention – and that another three were killed roughly a year ago, though the exact month is unclear.
|Month||Mar. 2014||Apr. 2014||Jun. 2014||Nov. 2014||Dec. 2014||Jan. and Feb. 2015|
|Dismembered Bodies Found||2||3||2||2||1||6|
Source: National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences (INML)
There are compelling reasons to believe that more people have been dismembered since the intervention. In two of the cases of disappearances Human Rights Watch documented in which the victims have not been found, the families received information that their loved ones had been “chopped up.”
Furthermore, there is indication that the groups may be increasingly burying victims in hidden graves, instead of dumping them in the sea, which previously led to the discovery of many bodies that washed ashore. A justice official told Human Rights Watch that his office had received credible information suggesting as much.
Since Santos announced the intervention, authorities have found 18 bodies in hidden graves, at least 12 of which had been dismembered. Human Rights Watch documented several of these cases, including:
- Jhonatan Suarez and Leonardo Fabio Casierra, two young men who went to the El Progreso neighborhood on December 21, 2014, to work on a construction job. They did not return home. The next day, criminal investigators searched an abandoned house in the area – which has a strong Empresa presence – and found three machetes and blood stains on the floor and walls. In mid-January 2015, investigators exhumed the dismembered remains of two people from separate hidden graves in El Progreso. Authorities have found evidence that the bodies are of the two men, and are examining whether the remains and disappearances are connected to the blood-stained house; and
- Luis Fernando Otero, a 17-year-old boy who washed cars for a living and who left his home in the Camilo Torres neighborhood on the evening of May 26, 2014, telling his family he was going to meet with friends. He did not return. His family said that the following morning, they found two fingers on a street near their home, which they recognized as his. On June 3, authorities exhumed Otero’s dismembered body from a hidden grave in the Gamboa area.
Justice officials told Human Rights Watch they had received credible information about hidden graves in various areas of the city, which they will continue to search for. Residents across the city also said they believe there are hidden graves in their communities.
There is compelling evidence that paramilitary successor groups are committing sexual violence in Buenaventura. The government’s Victims Unit, which provides reparations to conflict victims, registered 30 cases of sexual violence and abuse in Buenaventura between April and September, the most recent month for which figures are available. Thirteen victims identified members of successor groups as the attacker, 10 did not formally identify an attacker, 5 listed guerrillas, and 2 listed “others.”
One human rights official described two rape cases reported to him since the intervention. A woman told him that one day shortly after she gave birth, several members of a paramilitary successor group entered her home and raped her. Another case involved a group member who allegedly raped a young boy because his mother refused to be the man’s “girlfriend.”
Residents of various areas of the city told Human Rights Watch that the groups rape women and girls in their neighborhoods. One woman said that late one night toward the end of the year she witnessed a number of group members rape a woman in an open area outside her home.
Women and girls are also being sexually harassed, threatened with sexual violence, and coerced by paramilitary successor group members to be their “girlfriends,” residents and officials said.
A teenage girl said that in late-2014, as she was walking through her neighborhood, a group member exclaimed that she “looked good to rape.” The threat was particularly frightening because earlier in the year, the same group gang-raped her teenage friend. She said the group member “let me know that at any moment, they can rape me.” Later in 2014, a member of the same group raped another girl in the neighborhood, residents said.
The mother of a 12-year-old girl in another area of Buenaventura told Human Rights Watch that in late-2014 a member of a paramilitary successor group punched her daughter in the face for refusing to continue to be his “girlfriend.” She said that the group member – who is also a child – picked up a wooden board to continue to beat the girl with, but was restrained by other people. He also threatened to kill the girl’s brother. As a result, the girl left the neighborhood and is living apart from her family.
Recruitment and Use of Children
Buenaventura has one of the highest rates of recruitment of children into armed groups in Colombia, according to the Ombudsman’s Office. Residents and community leaders throughout the city told Human Rights Watch that many children as young as 10 are active in the paramilitary successor groups operating in their neighborhoods.
Children often act as lookouts, but have also participated in killings and other serious abuses by the groups. Of 24 people ordered arrested by authorities in relation to two cases of dismemberment in April, half were children under 18. More recently, on January 14, 2015, authorities arrested four children between the ages of 14 and 16 during an operation in which they rescued two men from a house where presumed Urabeños members were holding them. The children are accused of participating in the abduction of the two men as well as the torture of at least one of them who, according to the Ombudsman’s Office, had been tied up, beaten, subjected to electro-shocks, and threatened with dismemberment.
“Invisible Borders” and Restrictions on Movement
The Urabeños, Empresa, and AGC continue to severely restrict residents’ movement between neighborhoods. If people cross “invisible borders” between neighborhoods controlled by rival factions, they risk being suspected of collaborating with the enemy and attacked by the group that controls the area, residents and officials said.
A woman told Human Rights Watch that in late-2014, two men approached her son in a nearby neighborhood he was visiting to do homework with his classmates. The men told him they knew what neighborhood he was from, warned him that “we don’t want to see you around here,” and threatened to “chop [him] up.”
Residents of certain areas where the Urabeños operate listed specific neighborhoods they know they cannot visit because of the Empresa’s presence, and vice versa. Furthermore, many residents said it is dangerous for anyone not from the neighborhood to visit unless they are accompanied by someone from the area.
Between January and September 2014, 29,858 Buenaventura residents abandoned their homes, putting the municipality on pace to have the highest level of ongoing forced displacement in Colombia for the fourth consecutive year, according to government figures.
|Newly Displaced Buenaventura Residents||23,609||21,345||33,058||29,858|
Source: Victims Unit
Of the Buenaventura residents displaced between January and September, 13,682 had fled since April. These figures show that while displacement rates have dropped since the intervention, they remain high, with an average of nearly 2,300 people fleeing their homes each month between April and September.
More than 6,900 of the people displaced since April identified paramilitary successor groups as responsible. As in previous years, FARC guerrillas operating in rural areas of Buenaventura—and their combat with security forces – were also a significant cause of forced displacement in 2014. More than 2,300 Buenaventura residents displaced between April and September listed guerrilla groups as responsible.
Of the remaining Buenaventura residents displaced since April, 2,654 did not formally identify who was responsible, 1,205 listed “others,” 580 listed more than one perpetrator, and 13 listed the security forces, according to the Victims Unit.
Extortion, Theft, and Control of Economic Activities
Extortion by paramilitary successor groups is widespread, according to residents and officials. Victims range from motorcycle taxi drivers and street vendors to larger stores and businesses.
One man told Human Rights Watch that in late-2014, a paramilitary successor group halted a construction project he was involved in. The group said the work could not continue until it received a portion of the investment in the project. On the smaller end of the economic scale, a woman said that a paramilitary successor group has repeatedly forced her relative to pay them 2,000 pesos (roughly US$1) to let him sell corn pudding on the street.
Prosecutors told Human Rights Watch that six businesspeople were killed in Buenaventura between May and November and that extortion is a possible motive.
Paramilitary successor groups have retained their control over the distribution and sale of certain basic food products, prosecutors said. They said no one can sell eggs, meat, chicken, or cheese in the city without the group’s authorization.
The groups also seize property. The Ombudsman’s Office documented the case of a man who said that in early 2015, the Urabeños took him to a house where several group members threatened to strike him with their machetes. The group released him, but stole his motorbike.
Another resident said that in mid-2014, after she briefly went to live in a rural area with her family, she discovered that members of a paramilitary successor group were occupying her home in the city. She was afraid to ask them to leave.
The groups have regularly taken over or destroyed the homes of people they displace, said residents, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the United Nations refugee agency.
Threats Against Journalists and Community Leaders
In late September, a leaflet circulated by email threatened to kill eight journalists from Buenaventura and the nearby city of Cali. Signed by the Urabeños, the threat said false information had been published about the group and gave the journalists 24 hours to abandon their respective cities.
It is unclear whether the Urabeños were actually behind the threat. Journalists named in the threat told Human Rights Watch that the police claimed it had been made by common criminals, rather than the paramilitary successor group.
Irrespective of who is behind the threat, several of the victims said they feel intimidated and that it has affected their work. One Buenaventura journalist who covers crime in the city said he has lowered his profile since the threat, and that he no longer does reporting in certain neighborhoods with a strong presence of paramilitary successor groups. Another journalist in Buenaventura said that since the threat, he has decreased his coverage of security issues in the city. Both said they were considering leaving Buenaventura out of concern for their safety.
Community leaders also told Human Rights Watch that they are being threatened and intimidated by paramilitary successor groups. A leader from a neighborhood dominated by one group said that in mid-2014, two members of a rival group approached him and said they would kill him if he did not help them drive the opposing group from the area. Due to this threat, intimidating phone calls he has received, and the lack of security in his neighborhood, the leader said he decided to send two of his young children to live in another city.
Paramilitary successor groups have repeatedly threatened leaders from the La Playita neighborhood since last April, when community members established a “humanitarian space” in the area that aims to ban the presence of the groups. A Colombian human rights organization and international observers seek to dissuade attacks by maintaining a permanent presence in the area, with police guarding the perimeter.
The threats forced one leader from the “humanitarian space” to temporarily flee Buenaventura in mid-2014. She said that since she returned to the community, her children have been out of school because she is afraid of being attacked by a group that is active along the route to the school.
On September 15, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued precautionary measures ordering the Colombian government to take steps to protect the 302 families living in the “humanitarian space.”
Threats Against Victims’ Families and Under-Reporting of Abuses
Paramilitary successor groups threaten abuse victims’ families, telling them not to pursue information about their relatives’ cases or meet with justice authorities.
The mother of a young man disappeared by a paramilitary successor group in mid-2014 said that an unidentified person on a motorbike approached her and told her not to look for her son or go to the prosecutor’s office because she would suffer the same fate. When she later visited the prosecutor’s office, two men intercepted her on her way home, asked why she had not heeded the warning, and threatened to harm her other young child. As a result, the woman said she stopped going to the prosecutor’s office to inquire or provide information about her son’s case. Since his disappearance, she has also received six threatening phone calls telling her to leave Buenaventura.
In a similar case, the father of a young man murdered in early 2014 said that members of a paramilitary successor group went to his son’s burial and asked people who the father was. A few months later, just after he left a meeting in the prosecutor’s office related to his son’s case, a man approached him and told him to “stop investigating.” The father said that in late 2014, two men approached him again as he was leaving work, and told him to leave Buenaventura.
Even people who are not directly threatened are afraid to report crimes or speak with investigators, residents and officials said.
Justice officials acknowledge that the fear of reprisals poses a serious obstacle to accountability for disappearances. One justice official said that many disappearances continue to go unreported for this reason. Another said that even when cases are reported, families often withhold potentially useful information because they are afraid of reprisals.
In its March 2014 report, Human Rights Watch found that no one had been charged in any of the cases of disappearances in Buenaventura. A major reason was the overwhelming caseload of the one local prosecutor dedicated to investigating disappearances, who was handling 230 such cases, as well as more than 700 investigations into other crimes.
On April 4, Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre announced nine new measures to improve accountability in Buenaventura, including doubling the number of prosecutors and investigators in the local prosecutor’s office, reopening cases of disappearances and displacement that had been shelved, and prioritizing investigations into dismemberment and sexual violence.
The Attorney General’s Office has partially followed through, issuing a resolution officially giving priority to investigations in Buenaventura, improving coordination between justice authorities looking into abuses there, and adding 8 prosecutors and 8 investigators to the existing 15 and 18 stationed in the city. The Attorney General’s Office also has sent specialized investigators to Buenaventura to search for the remains of disappeared persons. Since November, these investigators have spent more than 30 days in the field searching for hidden graves in at least seven neighborhoods, and have discovered 15 bodies.
However, there is still just one prosecutor in the city working full-time investigating disappearances. (The other new prosecutors are looking into homicides, some cases of dismemberment, and sexual violence, among other crimes.) Instead of handling 230 disappearance cases, the prosecutor now has more than 400 such cases, many of which had been shelved prior to the intervention and were subsequently reopened. Even though she exclusively focuses on disappearances, the sheer magnitude of the caseload is a serious obstacle to justice.
As of February 2015, the prosecutor had obtained arrest warrants in just five of the more than 400 disappearance cases. The remaining investigations are in the preliminary stage, meaning that no one has been charged or convicted.
Two prosecutors from a specialized disappearances unit based outside of Buenaventura are also investigating some cases in the city, but they too have made only limited progress. Overall, none of the Attorney General’s Office’s investigations into disappearances in Buenaventura since 2010 have led to a conviction, and just two cases have reached the trial stage.
The vast majority of homicides in Buenaventura also go unpunished. Prosecutors report having obtained convictions in less than 2 percent of cases of homicides between 2010 and 2014.
The results are similar for other crimes:
- Of prosecutors’ investigations into 639 cases of sexual violence between 2010 and 2014, 589 are in the preliminary stage, and 7 have led to convictions; and
- Of prosecutors’ investigations into 467 cases of forced displacement between 2010 and 2014, 455 are in the preliminary stage, and none have led to convictions.
Some victims in Buenaventura described what appear to be inadequate efforts to investigate their cases. One man said that in early 2014, members of a paramilitary successor group took him to a house and held him there for several hours, during which their commander threatened to “chop [him] up.” The man reported the incident in mid-2014, but said justice officials told him they would let him know in three months if they would investigate the case. Four months later, the prosecutor’s office still had not contacted him.
Another woman said the prosecutor’s office had not contacted her since she initially reported her relative’s disappearance more than five months earlier, in mid-2014.
Human Rights Watch also documented a case in which police appear to have inadequately followed up on a reported abduction in a neighborhood where there have been multiple disappearances in recent years. In late 2014, paramilitary successor group members detained a young man who had entered their neighborhood on a motorbike, a witness said. The group took the man to a remote part of the neighborhood, prompting residents to call the police, who arrived and searched the area.
Residents did not assist the police search because they did not want to be seen speaking with them, the witness said. Police officials told Human Rights Watch that after failing to find the man after searching for several hours, they determined that no abduction had occurred, and closed the investigation. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm the fate of the abducted man – the witness said he never saw him reappear.
Inadequate Police Protection
Within the Colombian security forces, the police have the primary responsibility for protecting Buenaventura city residents and combating paramilitary successor groups there. In February and March 2014 the government sent hundreds of additional police and navy personnel to Buenaventura. Human Rights Watch requested information to verify whether the government has maintained the increased presence of security forces, but authorities did not provide it. It is likely that the increased presence of security forces contributed to the reduction in the number of homicides reported in Buenaventura since April.
Nevertheless, residents of certain areas report that the police do not have a permanent presence in their neighborhoods and patrol infrequently, leaving them vulnerable to paramilitary successor groups. One woman said that while the police presence in her neighborhood temporarily improved after March, it significantly decreased toward the end of the year. She said that sometimes a day can go by without the police patrolling the neighborhood, where the Empresa continues to commit serious abuses, including disappearances.
Another resident said that after the troop increase in March, police were stationed in his neighborhood on a 24-hour basis, but that by late 2014, they started leaving their posts by about 9 p.m. He said the Urabeños take advantage of the police absence to carry out their activities.
Residents of some areas also complained that police largely stay on the main street at the entrance to their neighborhoods. They said this is ineffective, because the paramilitary successor groups operate deeper inside the neighborhood.
Some residents told Human Rights Watch that they believe some police also collude with paramilitary successor groups. A man said that in mid-2014, he overheard a group member say that a policeman had sent him a text message warning of a planned search in the area, and that the police did in fact search the area shortly after. Another woman said that the group in her neighborhood regularly tells residents that if they report anything to the police, the police will inform them.
Inadequate Shelter for the Displaced
In March 2014, Human Rights Watch called on the city of Buenaventura to establish a shelter for displaced people who need it, to better comply with its obligation under Colombian law to provide temporary shelter to such individuals. The need for shelter is consistently high: 10,558 people listed Buenaventura as the municipality they fled to after being displaced between January and September 2014, 22,330 in 2013, and 16,247 in 2012, according to official data. The figures include people who were displaced from one neighborhood to another in the city.
Buenaventura authorities have not established a shelter and instead have been letting displaced people stay in a sports stadium called the Coliseo El Cristal where, according to the Ombudsman’s Office, the conditions are “inhumane.”
Hundreds of members of Wounaan indigenous communities have been housed in the stadium since late November when they started to flee rural areas of Buenaventura and Chocó. They have endured unhygienic living conditions and lacked access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation, said the Ombudsman’s Office and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In December, the stadium continued to host events even with displaced people staying there, and as of December 10, 141 people were sleeping on the floor, without sleeping pads or sheets. A one-year-old Wounaan boy fell ill in the stadium and died on December 18.