This article was written by the Peace Brigades International- Colombia Project
From a safe distance, Isla Calavera (Skull Island) looked tranquil on that sunny August morning. Located one kilometer from the downtown of the port city of Buenaventura, Isla Calavera—officially named “Isla Pájaros” (Bird Island) due to its diversity of birds—seems like a peaceful place, surrounded by the rolling waves of the San Antonio Estuary. However, while we waited for the Search Unit for Disappeared People (UBPD) to arrive in the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, J, one of the spaces founding leaders, reminisced and he reminded us why people from the neighborhood call it “Skull Island.” For decades, of the thousands of disappeared people from Buenaventura, many bodies were dumped in its waters, the families continue to look for them today.
J told us how violence persists in Buenaventura, about the inter-urban displacement and the cases of enforced disappearance that have transformed several parts of the city into clandestine mass graves, including the San Antonio Estuary, known to be one of the port city’s “water graves,” as it was used by armed groups to disappear victims. He also talked about the perseverance of the communities and organizations of victims of enforced disappearance who have resisted the violence alongside human rights organizations like the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation (FNEB) and the Inter-church Commission de Justice and Peace (JyP) who, together with others, in December 2021 achieved the implementation of precautionary measures for the San Antonio Estuary. In addition to disappeared people, the estuary is also home to business projects that seek to expand the Buenaventura port. The precautionary measures granted by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), prohibit any intervention in the estuary, in particular dredging and civil works as these represent the serious risk of causing irreparable damages in the locations where the disappeared bodies lie. Even though the measures where renewed this past September time is ticking. Victims continue to wait for answers on the resting places of their loved ones and major political pressure continues to push to reinitiate the dredging projects.
With 400,000 inhabitants and a seaport which moves over half of the country’s foreign trade, Buenaventura is the largest urban center on the Colombian Pacific Coast and one of the country’s most dynamic economic centers. Nevertheless, it is also a reflection of the crises and sociopolitical violence that plagues Colombia, with symptoms like economic inequality, armed conflict, and invisible borders between territories controlled by armed actors, which become deadly traps for the communities. Close to 90% of Buenaventura’s population is Afro-descendant and 80% of the population lives in poverty, half experiencing extreme poverty, making it one of the poorest cities in the country.
Buenaventura’s recent history is tied closely to its strategic location, with access to the sea from the center of Chocó biogeographic region: one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world with abundant sources of raw materials. Historically, the people of Buenaventura lived off artisanal mining, fishing, and lumber extraction. It was not until 1991, that the city’s port began to be administered by several private companies. According to the Truth Commission, this was one of the main reasons behind the unprecedented dynamics of violence that took hold in the port district. The port’s privatization and a simultaneous initiation of the country’s policy to open up to global free trade resulted in a multiplication of the investments allocated to expanding the port infrastructure, while traditional economic sectors pulled out. An economic focus that sought to solely benefit the port sector, in combination with an absence of any and all state development policies compounded the precarious situation faced in the city, which was also experiencing an intensification of the armed conflict. Today, the logic of international capital focused on expanding business through new megaprojects continues, with the cost of dispossessing the local Afro-Colombian communities of Buenaventura, a city also known as the “port without a community.” It is the community with the highest numbers for inter-urban displacement in all of Colombia, in addition to thousands of victims of enforced disappearance.
Also in the 90s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) established control in Buenaventura, followed by an incursion of the Calima Bloc of the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group starting in 2000. With the arrival of the Calima Bloc, Buenaventura suffered an intensified wave of violence, with over 800 forcibly disappeared in the following decades, according to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). These numbers are even higher according to the National Prosecutor General’s Office, with over 1,100 victims between 1997 and 2021. Many of these individuals were taken to horrific “chop houses,” the name given to sites near the Buenaventura estuaries. These houses are used by armed groups to torture and dismember victims, even today, before disappearing in the waters.
According to the communities of Buenaventura, intimidation is the sole aim of this practice. The crimes have now become visible and everybody learned about what was happening, however, for years authorities maintained silence and those responsible for these crimes against humanity remain in impunity. Meanwhile, victims’ families face state abandonment each day amid total uncertainty, without options to discover what really happened and without clarity on the whereabouts of their loved ones.
The silence surrounding enforced disappearances in Buenaventura mainly benefited the port companies that wanted to dredge the San Antonio Estuary without hindrance and ensure the navigation of ocean-going ships in the sector, regardless of the tide. However, the community did not remain silent. For years, victims’ organizations, by and large made up of women, such as Mothers for Life (Madres por la Vida), faced persecution and attacks from armed actors because they dedicated all their efforts to finding their loved ones. These women, partners, mothers, sisters, daughters, have received no recognition, economic support, or protection during decades of searching under threat. Thanks to their persistence, together with FNEB and CIJP, they achieved the protective measures for the estuary which contains, among other provisions, a search mandate for the Search Unit for Disappeared People (UBPD).
In the field, the complexity of the search can be seen. The conditions of the San Antonio Estuary are extreme, with hot temperatures and high humidity, in addition to many mosquitos that have found the perfect habitat amid the mangroves of Isla Calavera. An additional challenge is the island’s geology. The west is exposed to the Pacific Oceans' tide, which completely covers the island when it comes in and when it goes out, it drags everything in its path to the open sea. At the same time, the southern end constantly receives sediment from the Dagua River. However, the true challenge is the lack of advances in the registry of the disappeared people, the taking of samples, exhumations, findings, and prospections. This has been an obstacle to establishing the universe of disappeared people and facilitating the search process. Nor has an effective response been provided relative to the imminent risk of losing the victims’ remains in the estuary, violating the searchers’ rights. Accordingly, maintaining the precautionary measures and protecting the San Antonio Estuary are essential to advance the search for the victims of enforced disappearance in Buenaventura. It is also urgent that the authorities mentioned in the precautionary measures fulfill, as soon as possible, their functions to guarantee the rights to truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-repetition for victims, who have already waited too long with no response.