The ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombial (FARC) guerrillas give hope that a “post-conflict” future is on the horizon. But long before negotiations began in Havana in 2012, Colombian cities had already become a “beacon of hope” for urbanists around the world. Over the past decade, international observers have been lavishing praise on charismatic mayors, budding architects, and their creative interventions into the urban fabric—first in Bogotá and now in Medellín. Almost overnight, Colombia came to be seen as a laboratory of enlightened urban innovation, and this image dominates current discussions about its cities on the global stage. Many contradictory stories—unfolding outside the metropolitan centers, or on their peripheries, out of sight—never surface; others are dismissed as exceptions to an uplifting tale of post-conflict urban regeneration.

The port-city of Buenaventura is a prime example. Despite its increasing importance to the country’s economic future, it rarely figures in conversations about Colombian cities. In fact, even people who have heard of it are sometimes surprised to learn that as many as 350,000 people live there. The city, located along the southwestern Pacific coast, remains in the shadow of the country’s urban renaissance. Though Buenaventura’s star is rising as a commercial hub, it remains relatively invisible outside Colombia—this despite recent denunciations by international human rights organizations and media coverage of the volatile security situation in what is now regarded as the country’s most violent city. Invisibility is strategic: there are powerful people whose commercial interests—drugs bound for North America, electronics arriving from Asia—depend on keeping it that way. Highlighting the links between trade, both licit and illicit, and a worsening humanitarian crisis threatens to expose the horrific violence that underpins business as usual.

The recent flare-up of displacement, disappearances, and killings parallels Buenaventura’s transformation into a “world-class port-city.” As Colombia’s only Pacific Ocean port, enthusiasm for its rising “good fortune” is tied to projections of booming trade with Asia. With commentators far and wide heralding the advent of the “Chinese century,” Buenaventura has been labeled “Colombia’s gateway to the Pacific,” which the local development plan calls the “basin of the future.” The certainty with which the Colombian state views the global economic horizon is not matched by observers elsewhere, such as the World Bank and the Chinese government’s own economic advisory body. Yet the government is confident that increasing economic ties with Asia, and ramping up the capacity of its Pacific seaport, are the keys to strengthening the country’s global competitiveness. Recognizing this, the FARC have regularly sabotaged the city’s electricity connections and targeted the transportation corridors linking it to the mainland.

Port operations in full swing at night. Photograph by the Austin Zeiderman, 2014.

At the moment, vast amounts of public and private capital, from the Colombian government as well as investors from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, are being funneled into Buenaventura to accommodate, but also to entice, the anticipated increase of goods passing through the port. Standing in the way of this plan for Buenaventura’s future, however, are waterfront settlements collectively known as Bajamar (meaning “low-tide”). These informal dwellings are built and inhabited primarily by Afro-Colombians. An estimated 110,000 people occupy these settlements, approximately one third of the city’s total population.

The official vision for the city’s future considers Bajamar an obstacle, since it occupies the land needed for port infrastructure and urban redevelopment megaprojects. Implementing this vision, which combines aesthetic and technical criteria for how a “world-class port-city” should look and function, would require the removal of the majority of Bajamar’s residents. This displacement is facilitated by ongoing wars between rival paramilitary groups and state security forces, which are concentrated in these very same settlements due to their strategic importance to economies, both legal and illegal. A lot of money is at stake in these macabre battles for territorial control—not only revenue from drug trafficking but also ostensibly legitimate commerce.1

As talks with the FARC move tentatively forward, Colombia stands at a crossroads. A peace deal with the guerrillas would be a monumental accomplishment. President Juan Manuel Santos hopes that it would allow Colombia to finally break free from the armed conflict that has inhibited development for decades. But does development rely on violence? That is what the case of Buenaventura suggests; and not just any violence, but a particular form that is being addressed only tangentially by the negotiations in Havana. After all, the wave of killings in late 2012 reached its peak just as the multinational maritime terminal conglomerate based in Dubai, DP World, invested $150 million in the port. As a local religious leader put it, “Paramilitaries and development go hand in hand.”

Afro-Colombian activists connect Buenaventura’s current predicament to broader patterns of racialized violence and dispossession throughout the Americas and to the implicit endorsement across the political spectrum of the disposability of black lives. They argue that the armed groups terrorizing the city at present are compatible with the “world-class port-city” vision since they control territories necessary for expanding the port’s capacity and redeveloping its waterfront. The FARC, on the other hand, threaten that lucrative vision by seeking to disrupt the port-city’s infrastructural systems. The present situation in Buenaventura forces us to recognize that Colombia’s “post-conflict” future will remain elusive until all forms of violence—not only those bad for business, not only those affecting the light-skinned elite of the interior—are overcome.

Colombian port workers link their struggle with campaigns to end anti-black violence elsewhere. PASO International, 2014.


1. The gruesome nature of the violence in Buenaventura has reached new levels over the past year. In addition to an increasing number of disappearances, officials have uncovered a network of casas de pique (“chop houses”) where armed groups inflict torture on their rivals.