The city of Buenaventura is, according to a 2013 report from Human Rights Watch, the most violent place in Colombia. Political and gang violence have led to the forced displacement of tens of thousands of residents from the largely Afro-Colombian port city. According to the HRW report, “entire neighborhoods” are controlled by “powerful paramilitary groups” that recruit children, control the movements of residents and extort money from businesses. Anyone who resists is abducted and savagely murdered. Fear of reprisals prevents residents from reporting the murders to the police.
In recent years, residents have come together to make some attempts at nonviolent community action. In September 2013, for example, hundreds participated in a march for peace that was led by a Catholic bishop. The march ended in a soccer field, where participants prayed for an end to violence. The next day, however, a 23 year-old man’s severed head was found on the field. When his family tried to find the culprit, they received death threats.
A 2016 report authored by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) lays out the terrifying challenges community activists face, but they also point out that the violence is inspiring communal organizers to find nonviolent responses to the city’s situation. Community members have become motivated to look for creative ways to push back and free themselves from fear.
In April 2014, the community established the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space as a place for community cohesion, safety, creativity, and collective action. This creation of an urban space for peace and creative nonviolent resistance against state collusion with paramilitary forces and potential corporate incursion into the community’s ownership of its oceanfront land appears to be fairly unique within the context of the conflict. The Humanitarian Space has attracted and gained external support from the local Catholic clergy, national NGOs, international NGOs, and UN agencies. By September 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had granted precautionary protection measures to the families who live in the Humanitarian Space and ordered the Colombian State to adopt necessary measures to preserve their lives and personal integrity. As the IDS report states, “This is an act of resistance of violence and defiance of the highest order and highest risk, towards illegal and State armed actors as well as the local administration which has been trying for years to persuade these residents to relocate.”
One of the leaders of the Humanitarian Space told the IDS, “We have to set aside our fear… Those who lost their lives in this place have given us the spiritual strength…to say ‘Enough!’ We can’t let that situation happen of ‘yesterday they came for my neighbor and I didn’t speak out; they came for the priest and I didn’t speak out; then they came for me and it was too late…That’s why the community of San Francisco of the Puente de Los Nayeros, with all our problems and fears – because of course there are fears – has taken up the mantle of peace and said we have to stand up and construct a place of peace, so that our children can play like they’re doing over there, and we can sit and talk like we’re sitting and talking right here where two or three months ago we couldn’t sit because it was full of people with rifles, pistols, revolvers, grenades.”
Within its first year of operation, despite receiving constant death threats (which shows little sign of slowing down), the Humanitarian Space weathered the risks and formed a leadership committee, petitioned for support from the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace, and joined CONPAZ, a network of 120 communities known as Communities Building Peace in the Territories. The Humanitarian Space also drove out the paramilitary presence from the neighborhood and took down a chop-up house that had been installed to dismember and terrorize people. They have devised their own internal plans for community life and protection, and environmental conservation. They use creative communications strategies for outreach and engagement, including street theater and music, as well as more traditional communications strategies and advocacy. The multi-pronged resistance strategy is both creative and sophisticated, and both community-centered and community-led.
The Humanitarian Space has generated a local and global reputation for unity, and has therefore generated cross-community support for their processes. Women’s organizations, for example, composed of mothers who wanted to figure out how they could protect and nurture their children in the atmosphere of structural violence, have joined the process. Through community organization, they said, they learned what their rights were and how to empower themselves, even as they battled against patriarchal gender norms at home.
As Colombia works on implementing its peace plan, ratified in 2016, it is unclear how and when rule of law will be applied to the benefit of the country’s Afro-Colombian population and other populations at risk. A number of activists have been killed since ratification, while the media has turned its attention elsewhere. The Humanitarian Space is investing in strengthening bonds across borders, working for example with Black Lives Matter activists on forging international solidarity with other black communities, and in deepening its programming to support locally.