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In Buenaventura, the Colombian army faces gangs

"Shottas" and "Spartanos" have been fighting for months over the control of drug trafficking and other illegal activities - micro-trafficking, extortion, kidnappings.

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In Buenaventura, the Colombian army faces gangs

"Shottas" and "Spartanos" have been fighting for months over the control of drug trafficking and other illegal activities - micro-trafficking, extortion, kidnappings... - in the country's leading export port.

40% of the country's international trade and most of the cocaine destined for the United States pass through here, with today one of the highest number of homicides in Colombia (576 between 2017 and 2021, according to the Pares Foundation, not counting kidnappings and other enforced disappearances).

In the latest incident, members of the two gangs clashed with automatic weapons for several hours on August 30, a "night of terror", according to the local press, which made national headlines and once again shone the spotlight. on the city.

Drowned in the heart of the mangrove, Buenaventura (between 350,000 and 500,000 inhabitants, 90% black Afro-Colombians) stretches to its strategic port, at the end of the lagoon, along an overloaded avenue, with on both sides on the other, working-class neighborhoods where it is very dangerous to venture out alone, at the risk of being immediately kidnapped.

"Shottas" and "Spartanos" share control of these rows of modest brick houses, half-finished buildings protected by iron gates, wooden hovels on stilts and sheet metal shacks with their feet in water and garbage. .

They took over from the paramilitaries and guerrillas, who were already financing themselves through drug trafficking and terrorizing the local population with massacres and attacks until the 2000s.

- "Invisible borders" -

Coming from the same criminal group ("La Local"), the two gangs have considerably extended their hold since the end of 2020 to the many corners of the marshes that border the city, bringing violence to Buenaventura made up of shootings, kidnappings, extortion.

And sinister "slaughterhouse" houses, as the locals call them, where the bodies of the kidnapped end up being cut up before being thrown, out of sight, into the lagoon.

"New fact, the two groups have got their hands on the legal trade, in particular food: eggs, cheese, fruit... nothing escapes their extortion. They are even able to fix the price of certain foodstuffs basic", deciphers for AFP Juan Manuel Torres, researcher of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.

"What we are witnessing at the moment is a new urban war, where the stake is the territorial control of neighborhoods", explains Mr. Torres, who warns: "the situation has gotten out of control".

While the new left-wing president Gustavo Petro is expected in Buenaventura on Tuesday to try to locally implement his great project of "total peace" for the country, the Colombian police and army are patrolling the neighborhoods day and night, noted the AFP.

Their presence is concentrated in the streets most affected by the violence, often the areas of confrontation between the two groups, called here "invisible borders". As in "Jean XXIII", where the shots are almost daily, and the frightened inhabitants barricade themselves at home at nightfall.

The irruption of the soldiers that morning, landed from an arm of the sea, arouses apprehension and curiosity. We put our heads out on the doorstep, we take a discreet look behind a curtain. Weapons in hand, aimed at the alleys in rows, the soldiers progress cautiously.

"The bandits can shoot at us at any time," warns Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Aguilar, commander of Marine Infantry Battalion 24. "The two gangs are at war here, and they don't like to see us meddle in their business."

“Together with the police, we intervene so that they do not position themselves in the neighborhoods and no longer endanger the civilian population”, adds the officer, forced to recognize the difficulty of his mission. "There have been many changes in one year in Buenaventura, and unfortunately not in favor of the community...".

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