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buenaventura_colombiaBuenaventura, Colombia, home to approximately 300,000 residents, has consistently been ranked one of Colombia’s (and South America’s) deadliest cities. It is home to the nation’s highest homicide rate at 144 murders per 100,000 people—more than seven times the rate of the nation’s capital, Bogota. In this seaside port town, fishermen and gang members have lived together in a fatal balance for years, contributing to the town’s notorious reputation. In recent months, however, the level of violence has exploded, leading many residents to leave the city in search of a safer life elsewhere.

Colombia has been described by some as a country with two faces: one face is the Colombia of the elite and wealthy, while the other is a Colombia marked by violence, gang lords and a vicious drug trade. Once considered too dangerous for visitors due to a brutal civil war between various factions of the government and paramilitary groups, which began in 1964, Colombia has since cleaned itself up, with major cities like Bogota and Medellin now considered hot-spots for tourism. Despite massive improvements that have benefitted the country in recent years, as of 2013 an astonishing 30.6 percent of the population was living below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Colombia also remains the world’s largest cocaine producer, supplying 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States.

Buenaventura, a port town located on the Pacific Coast, is a perfect example of the way in which these “two faces” can collide.

On the one hand, Buenaventura struggles with a legacy of violence that continues to characterize the culture of the city today. During the 1980s, the city was a battleground between leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, and right-wing paramilitary groups. When the FARC were driven out, paramilitary groups established themselves and began to engage in gang activity, helping to carve the city into rival gang territories and the port into an important regional focal point for the export of cocaine. According to a Human Rights Watch report, these groups have taken the lives of many Buenaventura residents, who are often dismembered in so-called “chop houses” for unwittingly crossing between gang territories.

On the other hand, due to its strategic location on the coast, Buenaventura has recently become the centerpiece of a government strategy to increase Colombian trade with Asian and Western countries on the Pacific, such as the United States, Chile, Mexico and Peru. To achieve this goal, the central government in Bogota has invested millions in development projects, such as the construction of a container port and industrial park, as well as the construction of a major waterfront development project that authorities hope will help attract tourism.

Residents, however, have argued that there is a link between the recent rise of violence in the city and the development projects. Locals, for instance, point to the fact that much of the violence has been concentrated in and has affected locals living in areas along the port. Residential habitation of the area obstructs government plans to turn the area into a tourist destination.

In response to protracted levels of violence in the town, which has recently received increased media attention, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos finally intervened last year, sending in an emergency infusion of cash as well as police officers from the capital.

According to Colonel Marcelo Russi, the police commander in Buenaventura, the added law enforcement has helped to dramatically reduce the murder rate and number of disappearances in the city. Alexander Micolta, the executive president of the Buenaventura Chamber of Commerce, however, has stated that not enough is being done to effectively eradicate violence from the city. “Here, everything that has to do with the port advances. But the city doesn’t advance,” Micolta said.

In order to save Buenaventura, it is evident that money invested in the city needs to be focused on protecting the people who actually live there instead of in efforts to attract foreign investment and tourist capital. Otherwise, the city’s long history of violence and gang activity will continue to perpetuate itself and invade every corner of the city once the police presence leaves. If that happens, then Colombia’s “two faces” will persist to rear their ugly heads in tandem in the country’s small, sea-side city of Buenaventura.

Ana Powell

Sources: New York Times 1, New York Times 2, World Bank
Photo: War on Want

HIV_PreventionIn 2006, the Brazilian government made attempts to crack down on the drug problem that has ravaged most of South America. The Brazilian Congress did this by passing a law, known simply as the Drug Law. The strategy depersonalized drug possession for personal consumption and attempted to address it as a healthcare issue.

The strategy meant that citizens who would be caught using drugs, such as crack, would be sent to health facilities to be rehabbed, thus allowing law enforcement to deal with more pressing concerns, such as drug trafficking cartels.

Brazil is known to be one of the most dangerous and captivating places in the world. It is also one of the most active drug trafficking countries in the world. According to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report, Brazil has become the largest cocaine market in South America.

In 2014, the Brazilian government allocated over $2 billion on the “Crack: É Possível Vencer” law, which literally translates to “Crack: It Can Be Overcome.” The law is supposed to be managed by the healthcare, education and social justice ministry, but also includes funds for drug interdiction along Brazil’s borders.

Providing drug users with treatment would allow them to rejuvenate their life and help strengthen their communities. Unfortunately, standards such as the crack law have led to blurred policies that are crippling the healthcare system, specifically in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

Police raids have led to many youths being incarcerated in the two cities. Most of these children are petty users or traffickers for bigger cartels. The police remove them off the streets and pressure them to feel that they need rehabilitation and treatment.

In turn, pressure from politicians in the city forces medical personnel to give these children medical treatment, even when it is unnecessary. Although it is campaigned as a successful and strategic method to clean up the city, it is in fact wasting precious resources that could be used to successfully fight problematic drug abuse or other diseases, such as HIV.

Brazil has one of the highest HIV rates in Latin America. This is troubling especially in light of the fact that it is considered to be one of the most developed countries in all of South and Central America. According to UNAIDS, Brazil, whose total population was about 200 million, had an HIV/AIDS population of 730,000 in 2013. Compare this to India, a country whose population is five times the size of Brazil’s but whose HIV/AIDS population is only 2.1 million.

HIV prevention and testing have suffered greatly due to these policies. There was a 32% increase in HIV testing between 2004 and 2013. By 2014, that progress had decreased by almost 13%. This is because resources are being strained by the drug prevention laws.

A shift in policies and implementation is needed in order to combat the real health issues in Brazil, which are diseases such as HIV. If the Brazilian government does not allocate resources correctly, the war on drugs will have failed on both fronts: Brazil will have failed to prevent both drugs from entering the country and HIV populations from increasing.

Adnan Khalid

Sources: UNAIDS 1, UNAIDS 2, UNAIDS 3, UNODC, Washington Office of Latin America
Photo: WBUR

palestinian_territoriesEl Salvador has been called the deadliest peace-time country in the world. It is plagued by violence from gang wars and a growing drug trade. It is estimated that there are 70,000 gang members within the country of six million.

In 2011, 69 people were killed for every 100,000. The country has not experienced this amount of carnage since 1979 when it underwent a 12 year-long civil war.

With all of this violence, El Salvadoran youth cannot help but feel its effects. Gangs have power in many aspects of society, including in the government, the police and schools. Just under 50 percent of kids drop out of school before grade six. This keeps them from attaining essential skills for climbing out of poverty.

In order to give children and teens a safe place off of El Salvador’s gang-filled streets, the U.S. Agency for International Development has created 140 outreach centers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The hope is that these safe-spaces will serve as “second homes” for thousands of kids where they can learn useful skills and make steps toward favorable futures.

These centers are all parts of the El Salvador Crime and Violence Prevention Project, which is supported by USAID, as well as the El Salvadoran government and some private sector collaborators. Salvadorian youth living in at-risk neighborhoods are able to participate in engaging programs like English classes, computer training, life skills support, tutoring sessions, job training and volunteer opportunities.

Coordinators of the centers explain that when they open up in the morning, “all the children are already knocking on the door because they enjoy the environment in the center and like to participate in the games and lessons we prepare for them.”

Rather than getting involved with the ugly parts of their communities, kids are exposed to beneficial opportunities such as community construction projects. These hands-on programs inspire teamwork, a good work ethic and valuable experience. It also promotes a positive image for kids within their neighborhoods.

The 75 centers within El Salvador are run by volunteers who coordinate activities and create important bonds with each child. Many of them are in their late teens or early 20s and understand the threats that kids coming into the centers are coping with.

“I am always going to listen to them. I am always there for my beneficiaries,” says Karla Portillo. She is a coordinator in La Unión. “This center’s doors are always open for them. They already know this is their second home. For many of them this is their first home.”

Communities in El Salvador are dealing with incredibly high homicide and immigration levels, as people choose to flee the violence and poverty, and young people are dealing with missing parents and family members. Yet even if parents are still at home, they may not be present in the lives of their children.

The centers can make lasting change for the country too. Elder Monie is a community leader of one of El Salvador’s municipalities. She says, “The outreach center is a place where youth can learn and change the reality of the streets.” More children are finishing school, finding good jobs and staying off of the dangerous streets.

Mark Fierstein is an associate administrator for USAID. He says, “one of the things we most focused on is getting at the underlying factors that are promoting the illegal immigration. And that is to create jobs, to reduce poverty, and reduce crime.”

Lillian Sickler

Sources: Creative Associates International 1, Creative Associates International 2, PBS, Youth Build, Insight Crime, CBS News, Huffington Post
Photo: USAID