Turmoil, violence constant in Colombian cocaine hub

Maria Nieves Torres, a nurse, says harsh, impoverished conditions in Buenaventura, Colombia, help drug trafficking thrive.

DAVID ADAMS | Times

Maria Nieves Torres, a nurse, says harsh, impoverished conditions in Buenaventura, Colombia, help drug trafficking thrive.

BUENAVENTURA, Colombia — A sign near the entrance to this steamy, cocaine-infested port city provides a stark introduction.

"Hey, let the guns have a rest so there can be peace," it pleads.

Renowned as Colombia's most violent city, Buenaventura is on the front line of Colombia's drug war, a choke point for lucrative cocaine smuggling routes up the Pacific Coast.

But a yearlong government offensive may be paying off. Homicides have fallen dramatically and drug smuggling has slackened. A trickle of adventurous tourists are back at the Hotel Estacion, a rundown, neoclassical jewel that offers whale-watching tours.

Even so, the drug trade's grip on this city of 300,000 is far from broken. Which helps explain why, despite more than $5-billion in U.S. aid since 2000, Colombia continues to produce about 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United States.

"The problem here is the quantity of places they (traffickers) can get the drugs out," said Col. Klaus Gutierrez, 42, a senior officer at the main military base in Buenaventura, surveying an aerial map of the region.

"They look for any crack," he added, pointing to the labyrinthine network of rivers and estuaries bordered by thick jungle that dominate the coastline for hundreds of miles.

The area's topography and its strategic location on Colombia's northbound cocaine highway have made the city a battleground for rival forces seeking to control the drug trade, including left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries.

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After violence spiraled out of control last year, President Alvaro Uribe ordered troop reinforcements into the city. Homicides have dropped 70 percent from two years ago, from 393 in 2006 to 112 so far this year.

Now some 2,000 marines and special forces soldiers trained in urban warfare patrol the city, while the coast guard watches the country's busiest cargo port. Soldiers armed with assault rifles stand at street corners leading into the seaside slums, a rabbit warren of potholed dirt roads with blaring salsa music.

Last year authorities in Manzanillo, Mexico, seized 23 tons of cocaine hidden aboard a freight container that left Buenaventura. In all, more than 100 tons of cocaine was seized in the past two years off Colombia's Pacific region, according to officials.

Traffickers take advantage of the dramatic Pacific tide, as much as 13 feet every six hours, allowing them to disappear up estuaries that soon become unnavigable. Guns and drugs are sometimes stashed temporarily in sealed crates under the mud.

The coast guard is frequently outmatched. It has only four U.S.-supplied 40-foot speedboats.

With many slums bordering the sea, drug boats can be moored right alongside back porches, making customs inspection virtually impossible. Traffickers often evade detection by heading hundreds of miles south, as far as the Galapagos Islands.

Clandestine jungle boat yards turn out custom-built semisubmersible craft that can travel long distances with tons of drugs. Though slow moving, these craft are especially hard to detect as they ride so low in the water.

"The boat factory stands on stilts in thick mangroves and hidden under the jungle canopy," said the coast guard commander, Capt. Alejandro Estrada, showing pictures of one discovered this year. When the boat is ready the stilts are chopped away and it drops into the water, ready to be loaded with cocaine, he said.

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But the military presence on land has had an impact.

A senior commander of the city's urban militia belonging to the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, conceded in a secretive interview that his group had seen its drug revenue cut in half, down from a peak of $2.5-million a month. He said he could no longer afford to pay his 300 guerrillas their $375 monthly salaries.

He lamented how drug money had corrupted the FARC. "Now it's all blood and guns. The only ideology is money. No one will fight without it," he said, asking not to be identified and specifying an outdoor location where he could not be overheard or recorded, and where his security detail could keep watch.

This hard-won law and order has not altered the poverty that chokes the city.

Residents complain the government cares less about living standards than searching their homes and boats for drugs and contraband for the guerrillas.

"We are all catalogued as criminals," said Maria Nieves Torres, 42, a nurse and president of the community council of La Playita, a seaside shantytown. "We don't have proper schools or parks here, or running water."

Buenaventura is emblematic of the problems of Colombia, said Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert at the University of Miami.

"It's taken centuries of neglect to get where they are."

While militarization of the city was the only option to deal with the violence, it doesn't offer a long-term solution, he said.

"The military are susceptible to corruption, too. Sooner or later the drug cartels get to them," he said. "What needs to be done is to develop that whole region to bring it into the legal economy or else it will continue being tierra de nadie, a no-man's-land."

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

fast facts

Winning the war?

Measuring cocaine production in Colombia isn't easy.

Despite increased coca leaf cultivation (the raw material used to make cocaine) in Colombia, U.S. officials say cocaine production has fallen significantly in recent years due to intense aerial spraying of crops with herbicides, as well as manual uprooting.

U.S. officials say Colombia's potential production in 2007 dropped to 1.2-million pounds of pure cocaine, due to the eradication of older, more productive plants that have been replaced with younger plants that have lower leaf yields. But a congressional report by the General Accounting Office this month found that cocaine production in Colombia rose 4 percent from 2000 to 2006.

Turmoil, violence constant in Colombian cocaine hub 11/23/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 25, 2008 4:51pm]

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