Militarization Is Not the Answer in Buenaventura – “What the city needs is work.”

Buenaventura, Colombia has been racked by violence and crime for years. The port city is strategically important for drug traffickers, and a recent turf war between rival gangs has contributed to the bloodshed. Last month, a “shock plan” was proposed to bring new development projects to the area. This was accompanied by a “militarization” of the city, with the federal government sending hundreds of troops to reinforce security operations in the area.

Today, the Colombian newspaper El País published an article examining how things have developed over the last few weeks.

Some are optimistic, like Alexánder Micolta, the executive director of the Buenaventura Chamber of Commerce. “Despite the deaths, the atmosphere is one of confidence in the authorities…In general terms, the climate that we perceive is good,” he said.

Similarly, the local police commander, Col. Miguel Correa, took a positive view; “We have achieved very important results,” he said.

However, some were more skeptical, like district spokesperson Álvaro Martán Abonce. “We thought that the military intervention was going to stop this wave of violence, but it hasn’t been like that, we are even more concerned what is going to happen when those reinforcements leave.”

Héctor Epalza, a local bishop who led a march in February to protest the violence in his city, said, “The humanitarian and social situation of Buenaventura has improved a little, but it is still damaged…The military intervention is not sufficient.” Another local leader who was referred to by the pseudonym “Polo,” was similarly skeptical of the “shock plan.” “What the city needs is work,” he said, “Work for those young people who live there.”

Polo is right. Despite its economic importance as one of Colombia’s primary ports, the city’s unemployment rate is estimated to be above 60%. That’s a problem no number of police can fix – and realistically, even the roughly $100 million “shock” investment plan probably isn’t enough.

There is also a longer-term “Master Plan” to invest some $400 million in the area, but as another local priest, Jhon Reina, put it, that project “cannot be developed in the short term, hence the necessity of declaring a state of emergency that gives real tools to the state to intervene with concrete actions.”

The root cause of the gang violence in Buenaventura is not a lack of security personnel. It is a lack of legitimate economic opportunities. As then-director of the Buenaventura Chamber of Commerce, Ana María Mercedes Cano, told the New York Times in 2007, “There is no other viable industry here, so there are no other viable jobs. So we live in a situation with violence all around us.”

Fernando Nuñez, a resident of Buenaventura was more blunt: “If you’re hungry, you’ll do whatever imaginable to survive.”

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