Free-Trade Killing Fields

By Jess Hunter-Bowman 

Almost daily President Bush stubbornly repeats his plea that Congress ratify a free trade agreement Colombia. But one look at how that war-torn country prepares for increased trade confirms Congress is right to block the deal.  

Democrats have balked at the deal, citing Colombia’s unenviable position as the most dangerous country in the world for union members as well as high-level government collusion with deadly paramilitary groups. No doubt these are sound reasons to oppose the trade agreement. However not even Congress’ most ardent human rights defenders could imagine that expansion of Colombia’s largest port to accommodate increased trade may be behind the killing of hundreds in the coastal city of Buenaventura. 

Port and government officials indicate that the Buenaventura port and its access highway are in immediate need of expansion in order to cope with the expected growth in demand. The challenge to this expansion is simple. Buenaventura is located on a relatively small and densely populated peninsula. In order to expand the port’s capacity, people need to be moved out. According to local human rights groups and religious leaders, a carrot and stick approach is being used to vacate the Bajamar slums. 

On the one hand, the Colombian government has offered to use millions of dollars confiscated from a drug trafficker to relocate 3,000 poor families from the Bajamar neighborhoods. Yet few Bajamar residents are excited to accept this offer as a move out of their neighborhood would likely mean losing their jobs in the local fishing industry. Residents would prefer to stay in their wood and tin houses and keep their jobs. According to a local religious leader working in the neighborhoods, “people here do not want to move, but they are told they have to.” Enter the stick, which has turned the Bajamar slums into Colombia’s free trade killing fields. 

In recent years Buenaventura has become Colombia’s most violent city—no small feat in this war-torn country. Human rights groups estimate the city’s homicide rate reached 162 per 100,000 in 2006—almost six times that of Washington, D.C. Just last month there were another 30 killings reported in this city of 350,000. Much of the violence is concentrated in the Bajamar neighborhoods, causing local community, religious and human right leaders to conclude that such violence is—at least in part—carried out with the blessing or blind eye of the local police and military in order to drive people out, freeing tantalizing land for port expansion. It seems to be working. Human rights groups estimate that between 2006 and 2007 at least 1,800 people fled Bajamar due to the killings and death threats. 

Locals are convinced that the murders are related to the planned port expansion. “The origin of all of this can be found in the infrastructure projects … which must be built on the land of the poor, in Bajamar,” Buenaventura’s Catholic Bishop, Héctor Epalza was recently quoted as saying. “This is a dirty war, seeking to drive people out of their homes and thereby build the envisioned empire.” Adds a local resident, “This is how Buenaventura is preparing for the free trade agreement.” 

With an estimated 3,000 members of the police and Armed Forces patrolling Buenaventura’s streets it is hard to understand how they could not stem the violence, if they wanted to. “We hear on the news that the Armed Forces have been sent in to fight the armed groups but what we see in the neighborhoods are soldiers sitting on the corners smoking cigarettes with the paramilitaries,” explains a Bajamar resident. “There is not a single person in Buenaventura with their eyes open who doesn’t know the Armed Forces work with the paramilitaries,” says a religious leader who works in the slums.

In the United States we expect adjustments for free trade, but free trade killing fields? “This is what free trade preparation looks like here,” says a local labor leader. “Dead bodies.” 

Jess Hunter-Bowman is Andean Regional Director for Witness for Peace (, a nonprofit organization with 25 years of experience monitoring US policy in Latin America. Distributed by”

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2008

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