BUENAVENTURA, Colombia – Jhon Jairo Castro Balanta was around 20 years old when he started organizing dock workers in the Colombian coastal town of Buenaventura. After the port was privatized in 1993, he noticed wages stagnating. He saw “exploitation, outsourcing, discrimination, humiliation, all of these abuses”.
Castro Balanta became president of the Buenaventura Port Workers Union and traveled to Washington in 2011 during the negotiations on the trade promotion agreement between the US and Colombia to testify to Congress about poor working conditions. It was around this time that the death threats began, he recalled, and spoke by phone to Foreign Affairs in New York City, where he is now applying for asylum after fleeing Buenaventura in November 2020.
Buenaventura, a city of around 460,000 with rampant unemployment and gang violence, is located on the Pacific coast of Colombia. Over the years, more and more Colombians displaced from internal conflicts have ended up there, many of them living in abject poverty. The city’s main source of employment is the port, where more than half of Colombia’s imports and exports are handled.
But resentment among the residents of Buenaventura wallows over the fact that little money flowing through the port enriches the city, where armed groups are rampant, control every aspect of the economy and raise the prices of even basic foodstuffs. Castro Balanta and other Bonaverenses say locals are only hired for marginal work, receive no living wages or social security benefits, and face death threats for attempting to unionize. Employees often work 24 to 36 hours straight, sometimes even 23 days, without returning home until a ship is loaded, Castro Balanta said.
These abuses stalled the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement for years before it was finally signed in 2012. Legislators had heatedly debated signing such an agreement with a country where trade unionists are regularly murdered with impunity. Some expected that it could actually be the first deal of its kind to be rejected in US Congress. To move forward, then-President Barack Obama and then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed a labor rights action plan that included a commitment to combat violence against union members and bring those perpetrators to justice.
At the time the deal was signed – at the time formal negotiations to end the war began with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – the US-Colombia business partnership said the deal would “endanger the democratic institutions in.” Colombia empowering violent actors in Colombian society – guerrillas, self-defense forces and drug traffickers “and bringing” more legitimate jobs and opportunities “.
However, as the countries mark nearly a decade of the plan, few of these promises have been realized. Gang violence, unemployment and drug trafficking have only increased. In fact, in recent years Buenaventura has become known for its “Chop Houses”, in which tortured victims are later dismembered by gangs and armed groups. Colombia was named the deadliest country in the world for human rights defenders in 2020. 172 trade unionists have been murdered since the Labor Rights Action Plan came into force. In fact, residents claim that increasing trade has actually exacerbated the gang violence as armed groups vie for control of the territory earmarked for the port’s planned expansion.
Obama and Santos may have had good intentions with the work action plan, but it had no enforcement mechanism. “Many of the institutional changes and many of the actions that needed to be taken were halfway or not really implemented, and when the deal was passed in Congress in the US, the Santos administration didn’t do all of this to get this type of Commitments to continue, ”said Daniel Rangel, Global Trade Watch director of research at Public Citizen consumer group. “As the deal was not part of the main deal, it was very difficult for stakeholders to hold the Colombian government accountable for this failure to enforce commitments.”
Both Rangel and Castro Balanta suspect that if the U.S. Congress had waited longer, it might have encouraged the Santos administration to make more specific changes using the trade deal. “The trade deal could have helped, but I think both governments, in their zeal or because of pressure from big business people, big multinationals, turned the page,” Castro said. “Colombia lied that it met the requirements and the US government turned a deaf ear to the various testimonies from NGOs, trade unions and labor commissions that came out saying that things are not getting better.”
Aside from the lack of an enforcement mechanism, residents, researchers and activists say the Colombian government has felt free to neglect Buenaventura and similar regions, given that they are the majority of Afro descendants, a group historically with poorer social conditions and a lack of public Services and discrimination was faced compared to the majority of white mestizos in the country.
“The national government is investing in Buenaventura through the port infrastructure,” said Danelly Estupiñán, an activist who works with a local non-governmental organization called the Process of Black Communities. “No investments are made in the Buenaventura society or in the people of Buenaventura.” The city’s population is 95 percent Afro descendants and indigenous people. “In our estimation, the lack of investment” is precisely because of this. “
Estupiñán has been traveling under the constant protection of two bodyguards and an armored car since a report she worked on five years ago revealed links between the city’s port and increasing violence and poverty. “Because they don’t see us as human beings, they see us as things, and that is a colonial legacy,” said Estupiñán. “In the colony, people of African descent and indigenous peoples were not considered human. They weren’t even human. They were seen as things that were marketed, things that were sold, things that were controlled. “
In 2017, the anger in Buenaventura resulted in hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in a massive civil strike. After a wave of violence in December 2020 and January this year, hundreds of residents demonstrated, claiming government attention was low even after it made concessions to finance the city’s lack of basic services after the 2017 strike. This February series of demonstrations blocked access to the port and called for government intervention.
The unrest and recent wave of violence may have prompted the US Department of Labor to announce a US $ 5 million “cooperation agreement” in January to improve labor rights for Afro-Colombian dockers in Buenaventura and other ports. (Neither the U.S. nor the Colombian Department of Labor responded to requests for comment.) But at a time when the Colombian government is reversing old agreements and criticized for its antagonistic relationship with international human rights organizations, there is little reason to believe that they are live becomes his word.
The groundbreaking 2016 peace agreement with the FARC was intended to reintegrate former paramilitary members and promote the economic development of the indigenous and Afro-Colombian regions that were disproportionately affected by the conflict with the militant group that became a political party. But the current conservative government under President Iván Duque Márquez campaigned for the dismantling of these peace agreements and has found it difficult to implement them.
Indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups, as well as the United Nations human rights organization, have called on the President to take action to fully implement the peace accords and to combat lawlessness and poverty in remote and poor regions. If he doesn’t, the violence will continue to increase, pushing people towards cities like Buenaventura, which are already up to date.
Many displaced people have ended up in neighborhoods like Isla de la Paz, where roughly many families come from various violent regions of the country. The port is set to expand to allow for free trade deals with 17 countries, including the United States, and these are those neighborhoods that are critically endangered.
A mother of three Isla de la Paz residents said they couldn’t expand to build houses for more neighbors because men will come in the middle of the night to demolish houses under construction. She said utility companies don’t want to offer services like the Internet because they know the community will be evicted soon and spending money would be a “lost investment.”
“What is happening in many of these areas is the real reluctance of part of the national and departmental governments to really provide the people in these areas with basic things like drinking water, sewer systems or whatever,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, from Washington Office for Latin America. “And really pressure them to leave these areas so they can rebuild those areas for port infrastructure.”
The mother of three, who fled violence and kidnappings by armed groups and fumigation of coca in the city of Buenos Aires, Cauca province when she was 12, said armed men came often and told residents to including children, always threatened on the defensive
“We are slaves to our own environment,” she said.
With national demonstrations slated for April 28, Sánchez-Garzoli predicts they will resume protests in Buenaventura – and eventually spark another repressive response. The current Conservative government has been reluctant to deal with the leaders of social movements, and it believes they may pay lip service to the work action plan – if they do.
“They just don’t see the importance of getting involved in these sectors or looking for solutions,” she said. “Your priority is really the private sector. I just think this is all going to explode. “