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From 'chop houses' to nine years without murders: the Colombian neighborhood that is an island of peace in the middle of Buenaventura


Highlights: Puente Nayero is an island of peace in the middle of the Colombian city of Buenaventura. More than 600 families live peacefully there, protected by a precautionary measure of the inter-American human rights system. The community gathered the wood, assembled the pieces and erected a door as a form of civil resistance against the armed groups. "Every day bodies were found in the sea and in the estuaries, chopped, as we say here," says Nora Isabel Castillo.

In Puente Nayero live peacefully more than 600 families displaced by violence and protected by a precautionary measure of the inter-American human rights system

Life in Puente Nayero goes by at the rhythm of the tide. When it has not yet dawned, the fishermen come out. They take their canoes, which float on the water channels. In this area of Buenaventura there are no streets or houses on land. Strong and flexible chonta wood stakes support the houses above the sea and keep standing a complex network of bridges, alleys, friendships and sidewalks that make up the most representative architectural and social typology of the Colombian Pacific: the stilt houses. The water level drops as dawn approaches, and then fishermen can climb out from under the structures, dodging their pillars as in a maze, into the open sea.

The young people of Puente Nayero spend the afternoon at the viewpoint at the end of San Francisco Street.Santiago Mesa

A metal latticed door, about four meters high, separates this set of streets from the rest of the La Playita neighborhood and makes it clear, from the beginning, that it is not just any place: "Humanitarian Space Puente Nayero", says the inscription at the top. "Protected with precautionary measures granted by the IACHR," it reads later. Armed police guard the entrance and take shelter with their motorcycles under a zinc roof.

On April 13, 2014, the community gathered around a common goal. Together they gathered the wood, assembled the pieces and erected a door as a form of civil resistance against the armed groups. It was like a baptism, a resurrection that had the blessing of the bishop of the city. Initially the door was made of wood, like everything else. "It was a big door. We built it among all the neighbors. It was not so that no one entered, but a symbol of the declaration of these streets as a humanitarian space, "says Nora Isabel Castillo, a resident of the place and social leader.

Panoramic view of the humanitarian space Puente Nayero.Santiago Mesa

2013 was a difficult year for all of Buenaventura: there was a wave of disappearances, murders and forced recruitment of children and young people. Those were the times of the so-called 'chop houses', places where anyone who opposed territorial control was tortured and dismembered. "Every day bodies were found in the sea and in the estuaries, chopped, as we say here," says Nora Isabel.

Although the largest paramilitary structures had demobilized between 2003 and 2006, residual groups remained. Authorities said La Playita, where Puente Nayero is located, operated La Empresa, the port's largest gang, and a stronghold of the Urabeños, a rival organization with national reach. In Buenaventura's recent history, only the names change: in the dispute for control of drug trafficking routes, guerrillas and paramilitaries first clashed, and today the Shottas do so against the Spartans. Nora Isabel warns him: "Leaving the door, going there, nobody guarantees that something will not happen to you, because your life is in danger."

The architecture of the palafitos, with its intricacies and that kind of underground world, lends itself to the comadrazgo and to preserve the connection of its inhabitants with the sea but also, says Castillo, serves as a hiding place and refuge for crime, which had access to the neighborhood below the houses. "They did their thing shamelessly," the community recalls. The children learned fast: in a mixture of fantasy and reality, they played among the wooden piles with machetes and stick guns. And they were looking for light bulbs to throw themselves and watch them explode like grenades.

On April 13, 2014, the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space was established in the La Playita neighborhood, in Buenaventura.Santiago Mesa

Between November 2013 and September 2014, there were at least 80 murders in Buenaventura, according to data from the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace, an NGO that supported the community and was headed at the time by Danilo Rueda, now peace commissioner. Through this organization, the inhabitants of Puente Nayero presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) a request to protect the life and integrity of the 302 Afro-Colombian families who lived there at that time.

The petition sought to exert international pressure on the Colombian state to take special measures. After the door was lifted, threats against neighborhood leaders increased. The armed groups took revenge from their adjoining strongholds, in the sectors of Alfonso López and Piedras Cantan. It was not difficult to imagine that an inferno was coming when the one who threatened to 'sting' people was a paramilitary known as El diablo.

Although at that time Buenaventura was the most militarized municipality in the country, "there was evidence that allowed us to affirm that members of the public force sometimes supported the criminal actions of armed groups with their actions and omissions." The affirmation appears in resolution 25, of September 15, 2014, through which the IACHR finally demanded that the Colombian Government preserve the life and integrity of the members of that community.

Young people spend the afternoon at a viewpoint in Buenaventura.Santiago Mesa

This protection, which is usually provided to people who have received threats, in certain cases also applies to communities. In Colombia it is held by the Embera Eyábida indigenous people, in Antioquia, and three groups of the Wayúu people, in La Guajira, among others. Puente Nayero is the only humanitarian space in the country in an urban context.

The sentence allowed the community to reach an agreement with the State so that at the entrance there would be permanent surveillance by the Police, and so that where the street ends, which leads to a small port, the Navy would be. Although at the beginning the presence of the authorities generated a slight resentment, for nine years not a single murder has been reported.

Wood, fishing, river and sea

When the tide rises, so does the garbage: it floats on the water. When it goes down, it gets stuck in the sediments. No one knows for sure where it comes from – on the nearby beaches they say that the tide carries it from the port; in the port, which comes from the nearby beaches—. It seems infinite. Although cleaning days were scheduled, the next day it would appear again in the same amount. The humanitarian space enters the cart that sells the seasoned bread, "hot bread, rich rich bread"; or a van with a grill in the trunk that offers chorizo santarrosano from a speaker. But the garbage cart does not dare to pass. He waits at the door for a few minutes and leaves.

Most of the inhabitants of the area live from fishing. Santiago Mesa

In the eighties, everything was water. The land ended where the door is today. Until people migrating from the area of the Naya River – beautiful, wide and still crystal clear – began to arrive at the port and build in this place as they did on its banks: with houses on the water. First they came in search of opportunities, with the boom of the port. Then, thinking that their children could study. Until, at the beginning of 2000, a wave of forcibly displaced persons arrived, initially by the guerrillas and then by the paramilitaries of the Calima and Pacific blocs. There were more than 6,000, of which very few returned. The street, in its beginnings made of bridges built with their own hands, became the new home for many of them. Hence, it is known as Puente Nayero, where the "nayeros" live, although its official name is San Francisco Street.

Nora Isabel was a child when her father, Pompilio, led an initiative to fill the canal. He had been one of the first migrants, those who arrived of their own free will. "We started from the entrance. All the garbage that came to us, all of it, was thrown at us here; and we throw garbage. We were filling, filling, that was a process. Debris, ballast, sand, stones. Downwards, everything at the bottom is garbage. It will be about seven, eight meters deep," he explains. In this way, San Francisco Street, as solid as any, became the only one with solid ground of Puente Nayero, and the backbone of the network of alleys that lead to each other and that today make up a community. Since the self-proclamation of the humanitarian space, the population has doubled: there are 2,850 inhabitants, 600 families distributed in almost 300 houses.

Orlando Castillo knows the numbers. Son of Pompilio and brother of Nora, this sociologist is a recognized social leader of Naya and congressman of the Republic for one of the 16 peace seats, designated to represent the victims of the territories most affected by the conflict. He has 32 threats and three attacks to his credit. "What else can I expect from life... But what I tell myself is that if I keep quiet it's worse," he says in a viewpoint at the end of the street, from where you can see the ships that arrive full of containers and the cargo cranes that wait for them in the port. Less than a kilometer from Puente Nayero pass about 54,000 tons of merchandise every day, one in nine of those entering and leaving Colombia.

A Navy guard guards the exit to the sea in the humanitarian space Puente Nayero. Santiago Mesa

As with garbage, no one knows for sure where so much violence comes from in Buenaventura. "I remember," says Orlando, "25 years ago, 30 maybe, very young, that there was no violence here. But to the extent that drug trafficking, arms trafficking, migration, 'norteñismo,' the privatization of the dock were inoculated, "a breeding ground was created." With an aggravating factor, and that is that there were no universities here," he says. All of this would lead to the crime spikes of 2008 and 2014. And also this year, he says.

For him, behind the lack of education, opportunities, access to goods and services, is that "they have built a port without community. The community has simply served as labor, if needed. But no port has been built where the two come together to build." The other cause is corruption, theft in contracts, which he claims comes from above. It begins in Bogotá, passes through Cali, capital of the department, and ends in Buenaventura.

Nora adds a third factor: she associates violence in certain communes with the construction of megaprojects, "because where you think of a megaproject, there is violence." He assures that within the Master Plan Buenaventura 2050 it is thought that the boardwalk will be extended to this area, that there will be hotel chains and container warehouses. "Then what's wrong? There is a population in that place, because we build, we fill this."

View of Buenaventura.Santiago Mesa

Puente Nayero is, at the same time, a street, a neighborhood and a piece of Naya, where their customs survive. They sing coos and make a novena to the deceased: before being buried, they are prayed nine days at home and an altar is made for them. Dance and music is fundamental and has been the strategy implemented by María Yenny Quevedo, coordinator of Culture of the humanitarian space, to keep children and young people away from the old violent games. He teaches them dances, to play marimba and cununo. The past is now just a murmur: it is rumored that in the little white house in the background people were dismembered, and the story is told, which merges with a myth, of a woman who was tied with stones and thrown to the bottom of the sea.

That's a long time ago. Life has gone on. The population maintains its traditional activities, all related to the ocean. They cannot imagine being relocated, far away, in social housing. Many live from cutting wood, although it is estimated that 60% of the inhabitants of this sector depend on fishing. The women do the same and, guided by the currents, when there is puja, or high tide, they go out to collect mollusks. The force of the water carries the crabs and shrimp to the surface. In the afternoon, with the tasks accomplished, the streets are filled with life. Gone are the days of curfews, when people hid in their homes at dusk. The children arrive from school, the women comadrean and the young people get into the water. Men go to billiards or have a beer in the shade, in the street bar, Memories of her.

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Source: elparis

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