By Mario Baos
Buenaventura, Colombia, Jul 22 (EFE).- Ninety white crosses stand on either side of the main road leading into Buenaventura, Colombia’s most important Pacific port, and each bears the name of a victim of a struggle for dominance between two criminal gangs.
Along with crosses for slain children, taxi drivers, police officers, and shopkeepers, there is one for crime boss Ivan “Super” Bonilla Garcia, whose murder and dismemberment was filmed and posted online.
Also commemorated is 7-year-old Kimberly Quiñonez Hinestroza, who died a few days ago at a Buenaventura hospital after being hit by a stray bullet.
A schoolteacher in the city, who spoke to EFE on condition of anonymity, said that while gunfights can break out at any hour, residents of Buenaventura’s Comunas 10 and 12 are most fearful after nightfall, when the Shottas and Espartanos gangs battle each other on the streets.
“We don’t want more white crosses. The dead are young people who we couldn’t keep in school and as an educator, I blame myself, because we couldn’t guarantee that school would be more attractive than a pistol,” he said.
Residents say that in some neighborhoods of the comunas, 70 percent of homes are wrecked, while more than 300 children have dropped out of school.
“Opportunities are lacking here. There are no playing fields, no music halls, no employment. They (the gangs) seduce boys of 16 telling them that they will pay them 600,000 pesos ($151.56, a little less than half the average salary) a month, but they don’t even receive the first payment, because they kill them,” the teacher said.
Against that bleak background, people in Buenaventura welcomed the start last Tuesday of discussions between the leaders of the Shottas and the Espartanos under the auspices of the Colombian government.
“We have to be artisans of peace for there to be no more grief nor blood in the port. We have asked God and the government to help us in this,” said Monsignor Ruben Dario Jaramillo, the Catholic archbishop of Buenaventura.
But on the very day the talks began, two Shottas were killed.
“We live 300 meters (yards) from the port zone, we are surrounded by giant warehouses with those containers that they load on the ships. We live alongside the riches of others. Paradoxically, the lack of opportunities causes our young people to lose themselves, to kill each other,” Buenaventura resident Lucero Riascos said.
Another teacher, who also spoke anonymously, told EFE with tears in his eyes that while the gang members have no respect for authority, they do trust their teachers.
“That’s why we want there to be a uniform school day that goes from 7 in the morning to 6 in the evening, with meals provided, with sports programs and with things that are attractive to the children,” he said. “We want pencils and not rifles. We can’t bear more deaths in the neighborhood.” EFE mba/dr