In June 2015, Colombian congressman Alexander Lopez visited the Catalan and UK Parliaments to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in Buenaventura. He addressed the interrelationship between foreign investment and human rights violations in one of the most violent cities in the world.
Colombian Senator Alexander Lopez (middle) with UK Parliamentarians and representatives of NGOs in London, June 2015.
On 30 June 2015, Colombian congressman Alexander Lopez visited UK Parliamentarians. The objective of his visit was to highlight the humanitarian situation in the city of Buenaventura on the Pacific Coast of Colombia, which has reached shocking proportions in the last 20 years.
Buenaventura is situated in an exceptionally bio-diverse region of Colombia with more than 15 fresh water sources.
Nevertheless, Buenaventura, a city of roughly 400,000 inhabitants, is also one of the most violent cities in Latin America. Lopez reports that, according to official figures from the Attorney General’s office and the Interior Ministry, in the last 20 years there have been at least 26 massacres, 160,000 persons forcibly displaced and more than 6,000 people murdered. Yet this is the busiest and most important port in Colombia, with 60% of its goods being exported from Buenaventura. It is concerning to note that the high level of direct foreign investment in the expansion of the port has occurred at the same time as a grave humanitarian and human rights crisis.
Buenaventura lacks the most basic social services and infrastructure to ensure dignified living conditions. Despite massive foreign investment in the port, people in the city centre have access to drinking water for only two hours per day. “An adequate sanitary system simply does not exist”, says Lopez. Similarly, energy is quite precarious, with only 70% of the population having access to electricity.
The city’s only public hospital was shut down in 2014. Currently, there are only 30 places in the hospital to attend emergencies in all of Buenaventura. Vulnerable groups are particularly affected by the humanitarian crisis: 30% of children suffer from malnutrition in Buenaventura, with only 50% having access to basic education.
Traditionally, people in Buenaventura live off fishing and logging. However, in spite of the economic growth and foreign investment in the region, more than 60% of the population is unemployed. For Lopez it is very important that European investors understand the context of the area where they make investments. He emphasises that it is impossible to ignore that Buenaventura is living in a state of permanent war with tremendous levels of violence. Every month, around 20 houses in the areas designated for the port expansion are burnt down.
Violence and port expansion
In recent years, a completely new model of human rights violation has emerged in the area: so-called “chop houses” (“casas de pique”). This is where paramilitary groups (“BACRIM”, as they are called by the Colombian Government) are taking people at night and dismembering them whilst they are still alive, especially women and young people. This became a scandal in Colombia in 2014, as media outlets reported what was happening. The screams of people during the night, along with body parts left in different parts of the city, led to a terrorisation of the population. Following the reporting of this situation, the number of homicides in Buenaventura decreased. According to Lopez and international organisations like Human Rights Watch, however, this practice continues but instead of being killed, people are now being disappeared.
Senator Lopez explained that his office has been documenting the situation in Buenaventura and found that the barrios (local estates) where foreign companies are making investments correlate with the killings and disappearances. The example he gave was of Comuna 5, where predominantly foreign investors are involved: in this barrio alone, 19 cases of dismemberments in chop houses have become public.
Despite the wide-spread security emergency, the port continues to function perfectly. It has access to water 24 hours per day and has not reported a single security problem.
Lopez has organised four parliamentary debates on Buenaventura in the Colombian Congress. He is now seeking international support to convince the Colombian government that economic growth must not come at the expense of the human rights of vulnerable communities. To this end, he has brought the case of Buenaventura to the attention of the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.
Colombian Government “unable” to control the situation
Meanwhile, the Colombian government has already expressly authorised various projects to expand the port of Buenaventura. Unfortunately, these projects are being carried out in zones that constitute the ancestral homes of many Afro-Colombian communities, who are resisting the displacements. The communities have established “Humanitarian Spaces”, where they get national accompaniment from the Commisión Inter-eclesial de Justicia y Paz (the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace), who is a partner of ABColombia member Christian Aid. They are also accompanied by Peace Brigades International.
In the British Parliament, Lopez went on to explain that he had spoken to the Colombian Government about this situation, but that they claimed not to have the ability to prevent the communities being violently driven out of their homes, be it through homicides, dismemberments, rape or violence against children.
According to Alexander Lopez’s research into the issue, the 170,000 persons who are still living in the port zone have been directly impacted by massive human rights violations. Forced disappearances are a major issue. However, Lopez finds it hard to understand why – considering that the State’s Security Forces are present in this city – the government is unable to exert control over Buenaventura, while the port has not been affected by the violence and humanitarian crisis at all.
In light of this fact, Lopez emphasises that he and his party are not against the port expansion, economic growth and development; but they demand international investors to comply with human rights standards and legal requirements such as prior consultation. The continued port expansion will mean that the communities have to be displaced. “The communities in Buenaventura have not been consulted in relation to this kind of megaproject in their city. They must be given a real and effective choice as to whether they are willing to leave their territory or not.”
“A journalist asked me this morning: What do you want to tell the parliamentarians?” said Lopez. “I want to tell the foreign investors that I am not against them. But I want them to think about their own children. What can these investors tell their children when they ask them where all their wealth came from? Where did they make these investments to ensure their children have a future? Well, they made them in a place where children die from violence. (…) I am sure that if a foreign company comes here with the same strategy, you would not allow them to proceed. Then, why does Colombia have to allow it?” 
Alexander Lopez Maya (Polo Democrático Alternativo), Colombian lawyer and congressman since 2002. Currently member of the Senate. He is particularly involved with labour rights and human rights.
 Quote from Alexander Lopez’ speech in the Parliament of Catalunya (Spain) on 26 June 2015.
• Scott C. Johnson, “The forgotten Streets” (Foreign Policy).
• Human Rights Watch, “The Crisis in Buenaventura” (March 2014).
• Human Rights Watch, “Colombia: New Killings, Disappearances in Pacific Port” (March 2015).
• The Economist, “Colombia’s most violent city: Butchery in Buenaventura” (March 2014).
• Norwegian Refugee Council, “Forced Displacement and Gender-based Sexual Violence: Buenaventura, Colombia’s Brutal Realities” (September 2014).
• The Guardian, “Colombian port city where body parts wash up following screams in the dark” (October 2014).
• Colombia Reports, “UN urges Colombia to attend security crisis in Pacific port city” (November 2013).
• War on Want, “Buenaventura’s human rights crisis“.