At his residence in the Colombian port of Buenaventura, Monsignor Héctor Epalza Quintero portrays in chilling detail the destruction of his city. He speaks softly and never breaks eye contact; it’s as if he is studying the reaction, making sure the level of depravity he describes is sinking in.
That morning he had heard from a woman whose son had disappeared. She found someone from the group presumed responsible and was brought to a house where, she hoped, her boy might be held. When she walked inside, a grisly scene greeted her and a warning halted her most basic human reaction.
“She was about to scream,” says the bishop, shaking his head. “She was told to be silent, just to look and see if her son was there and if not, just leave.” Inside the room about fifteen bodies lay scattered around—the corpses of some of Buenaventura’s missing, ready to be discarded.
“That’s how horrible the situation is,” he says.
Life in Buenaventura, which is on the Pacific Coast just northwest of Cali, has long been cruel; an 80 percent poverty rate and the violence of the Colombian civil war have made for a bitter struggle for the 370,000 mostly Afro-Colombians within the city limits. But since a ferocious turf war erupted between armed gangs Los Urabeños and La Empresa in October 2012, residents have seen a cycle of savagery unique even by the standards of the country’s fifty-year conflict.
On June 15, Colombians will go to the polls to elect their president, with peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leading the agenda. In a dirty, close-run contest, President Juan Manuel Santos and his challenger, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, have clashed over the negotiations Santos initiated with the FARC in 2012. Zuluaga is strongly backed by former President Álvaro Uribe—who with virtually limitless US backing through Plan Colombia almost obliterated FARC between 2002 and 2010—and it is accepted that were Zuluaga to take office, strict concessions he would demand of the rebels would place the talks in serious jeopardy.
But though all focus is on the upcoming run-off and its impact on the talks, in Buenaventura a conflict far removed from the bickering of the campaign trail rages on. From this city, huge amounts of the country’s cocaine leaves for foreign shores and for the past two years, this strategic port has been up for grabs. It’s a city already littered with mass graves, and disappearances and live dismemberments are now a regular occurrence. And two US Congressmen, Representatives Jim McGovern and George Miller, point to disturbing evidence of collusion between US and other multinationals and the death squads that are responsible.
Asked to put aside his role as a spiritual leader and describe the personal impact this has had on him, the bishop seems stunned. His lips quiver, his eyes well up and for a few wordless minutes he sobs uncontrollably. His lead role in local peace marches—one a few months ago attracted 30,000 people—has seen him come under intense pressure, and it shows.
“I dreamed that I was killed, that they were killing me,” he says, regaining his composure. “This has affected me deeply. I’m becoming a target and a focus; everything is on me. I have been advised not to move around too much.”