Police walk on a bridge above a mangrove-cloaked river as...

Police walk on a bridge above a mangrove-cloaked river as they patrol a neighborhood abandoned by residents due to the presence of criminal gangs in Buenaventura, Colombia, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. The river is one of the key channels used by gangs to move drugs and weapons through this long-neglected swath of Colombia’s Pacific coast. Credit: AP/Fernando Vergara

BUENAVENTURA, Colombia — Officers wade through rows of abandoned wooden homes teetering above a mangrove-cloaked river – one of the key channels used by gangs to move drugs and weapons through this long-neglected swath of Colombia’s Pacific coast.

Each step for them is a reminder: Control here remains not with the law, but with those whose names are spoken in whispers in their city. Los Shottas and Los Espartanos.

The two gangs are the latest to lay siege to Buenaventura, Colombia’s busiest port and the crown jewel of narcotrafficking routes, the jump point from which drugs pour out to the rest of the world.

Now, they’re among a growing set of armed groups lining up to negotiate peace deals with Colombia’s new government.

Upon his historic election last year, Colombia’s rebel-turned-president Gustavo Petro promised to cement “total peace” and end one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. But as his government moves to fulfill that bold promise, Buenaventura has grown to exemplify the tangled mess the ex-rebel leader must unravel.

Petro aims to rewire how the South American nation addresses endemic violence, replacing military operations with social programs tackling the conflict’s roots, including poverty in violence-torn areas like Buenaventura. He’s also negotiating with the most powerful of Colombia’s mutating armed groups – from leftist guerrillas to smaller trafficking mafias – in an effort to get them to demobilize simultaneously.

More than a year since Petro took office, his “total peace” plan has inched forward. More than 31,000 armed fighters make up the militias that have come forward to begin peace talks, according to government estimates. Programs for the young people that gangs recruit are planned in Buenaventura and other cities. But the country’s most powerful armed groups have grown stronger, according to experts, and bloodshed between rival groups has skyrocketed.

Police walk on a bridge above a mangrove-cloaked river as...

Police walk on a bridge above a mangrove-cloaked river as they patrol a neighborhood abandoned by residents due to the presence of criminal gangs in Buenaventura, Colombia, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. The river is one of the key channels used by gangs to move drugs and weapons through this long-neglected swath of Colombia’s Pacific coast. Credit: AP/Fernando Vergara

Critics say the criminal groups are only taking advantage of ceasefires with the government. They describe strong criminal economies and law enforcement officials unable to pursue perpetrators. And many people, from victims to the armed groups seeking a deal, view Petro’s plan with distrust begot by decades of violence and failed promises.

“The idea behind ‘total peace’ is right on the money. You know, let’s look at the social issues behind these conflicts,” said Jeremy McDermott, co-founder of InSight Crime, a Colombia-based think tank. “The great challenge Petro faces is: How do you talk peace without strengthening these groups?”

No group is yet close to signing a full peace agreement. In Buenaventura, Los Shottas refuses to demobilize until “every armed group in Colombia sets down arms, too,” a delegate for the gang told The Associated Press.

“Do you know how many groups want to take control of Buenaventura? Tons,” said the man, who declined to give his name and spoke on condition that he be identified by his nom de guerre, Jeronimo. “And if they hand over their power, what will happen? Those groups are going to come and exterminate us.”

Lupe, top left, sews at a cooperative created to support...

Lupe, top left, sews at a cooperative created to support women who've been victims of Colombia's long-running conflict in Buenaventura, Colombia, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. Lupe, who spoke on condition of using only her first name, for fear of retribution, said gangs threatened to kill her son and kidnap her granddaughter, pushing them to flee to the United States by night, carrying only small backpacks. Credit: AP/Fernando Vergara

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Across Colombia, decades of war between leftist guerrillas, rightwing paramilitaries, trafficking groups and the government have left more than 9.5 million people – nearly 20% of the population – as victims of forced displacement, homicide, sexual violence and more.

In Buenaventura, turf wars have bred a particularly brutal conflict, making the city one of the world’s most violent. Homicide, kidnapping, torture and sexual abuse are commonplace. So are mass graves and “chop houses,” where gangs dismember enemies, letting their screams echo through neighborhoods.

The names and faces of victims are painted on city walls, and along the main throughway, a sign surrounded by white crosses reads: “Death can’t be our only hope.” Young men perch on motorcycles on street corners, watching the territories their gangs control. On Buenaventura’s jungled fringes, rival groups wait to seize their part of the city - police say there’s so many, they’ve lost count.

Residents are quick to say bloodshed has touched every soul in the city of 450,000 — most of all, young people.

Lupe, a 57-year-old lifelong Buenaventura resident, knows this all too well. She lost her son and granddaughter to the gangs first.

Cristian was 25, working as an inspector of coffee, bananas and avocados in the city’s port when he refused to let one of Los Shottas’ drug shipment through — he feared losing one of the legal jobs available to young people here, Lupe said.

She watched as threats to kill him and kidnap his daughter piled in. Over three years, they grew so grisly that Cristian knew they had to leave. He fled to the United States by night, carrying only small backpacks for him and his daughter, now 5.

Lupe, who tried for the better part of two decades to shield her son from the city’s criminal underworld, hasn’t seen them since last year, but takes solace in knowing they’re safe.

“Here, young people have no peace, they have no harmony or calm,” said Lupe, who spoke to AP on condition that only her first name be used, for fear of gang retribution. “This here, our territory, it’s a time bomb.”

The young people who lack opportunities and are forcibly recruited into gangs are equal parts victims and victimizers, many here say.

“They don’t choose it, they’re forced into it,” said Rubén Darío Jaramillo Montoya, bishop of Buenaventura. “They’re poor, they’ve never known another reality. Violence envelops them … and then they can’t leave.”

As part of the “total peace” plan, programs geared toward recruitment will be rolled out in cities with the highest rates of violence and poverty, including Buenaventura, government adviser Carolina Hoyos told AP. She described them as fundamental to the overall picture.

Young People in Peace will give a monthly stipend of a million pesos, around $250, to 100,000 Colombians ages of 14 to 28 “linked or at the risk of being linked” to criminal groups, Hoyos said. They’ll be required to seek education and carry out some form of social work.

In May, Petro said: “There will be thousands of young people we will pay not to kill, for not participating in violence, for studying.”

But some question whether the program’s timeline — lasting between six and 18 months — is enough to be effective.

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