Buenaventura, Colombia – Gisela Diaz, 40, bursts into tears as she recalls the years of violence and discrimination she and her LGBTQ friends have endured in their struggling city.
“The situation is very difficult [for LGBTQ people] here in Buenaventura, ”says Diaz, who identifies as a lesbian.
The main Afro-Colombian port city on the west coast of Colombia, Buenaventura has long been considered one of the most violent places in the country. This is where the “casas de pique” (Spanish for cutting houses) operated, where armed groups dismembered the victims and deposited their bodies in the adjacent Pacific Ocean.
In 2019, Buenaventura held its first LGBTQ pride parade, something unheard of in the traditional and macho, or male chauvinist city. John Albornoz, a gay man who proposed and coordinated the event, said it was a day to remember for the city’s LGBTQ community.
“That year, the armed gangs who fought for control of the territory were going through a period of peace. So we had the freedom to be, ”said Albornoz, 46.
But Albornoz, who heads a local LGBTQ rights group, said he would not try to organize a pride celebration in Buenaventura’s current violent climate.
“It’s horrible. Our young friends have had to flee the city because of the violence that is happening, because unfortunately the violence we see in marginalized neighborhoods is where many of our members are. [LGBTQ] living community, ”said Albornoz.
Al Jazeera spoke with nine members of the LGBTQ community in Buenaventura. All confirmed that the new wave of violence directly affected them or other LGBTQ people they knew in the city.
In the second half of 2020, violence escalated in Buenaventura as Los Chotas and Los Espartanos, two rival armed gangs who split from a larger and now defunct group called La Local, fought for control. of the city’s territory. Gangs are also involved in drug trafficking.
“It’s no secret that this port in the Pacific Ocean is also a strategic route for those involved in illicit activities,” says Albornoz.
Social activists and residents say dismemberments, displacement and disappearances are on the rise. Authorities confirm that there have so far been 22 gun violence-related deaths in the city of nearly 400,000 people in 2021.
This increase in violence has directly affected the LGBTQ community of Buenaventura.
“I received death threats just because I was gay,” says Cristina Montenegro, a 21-year-old transsexual living in Buenaventura. She says she has had to pay vigilantes from the protection of local groups to make a living as a sex worker, a profession that many transgender women resort to due to lack of opportunities in other professions.
Wilson Castañeda, director of Caribe Afirmativo, a Colombian LGBTQ rights organization, says he condemns the high levels of violence against LGBTQ people in Buenaventura.
Castañeda says that people who openly express their sexual diversity or who have a different gender expression than what is “culturally established” are even more at risk than most residents of Buenaventura. He says this violence has prompted many members of the LGBTQ community to move to nearby Cali. Nonetheless, “some decided to stay and resist, and suffered physical violence,” Castañeda says.
Diaz, who chose to stay in Buenaventura despite the risks, opened up about an attack on his life: “Six months ago, they tried to kill me because of my sexuality. There are a lot of homophobic people in the neighborhood [where I was living], and they created a situation with some of the guys from [armed] group, ”she said.
Diaz says armed gang members fired three shots at his apartment, located in a neighborhood called El Pailón. The bullets did not hit her, but she was forced to leave the area and now lives in another part of Buenaventura.
Some told Al Jazeera that they did not report incidents of violence or discrimination for fear of reprisals from armed groups, but also for lack of confidence in the local police.
“The LGBTQ community of Buenaventura does not trust the authorities because they do not pay attention to the appeals of the community [for help]Albornoz said.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andean director for the Washington office’s advocacy group on Latin America, confirmed: “Impunity in LGBT cases is endemic and violent actors take advantage… in areas of acute insecurity [LGBT individuals] are often used as examples by illegal armed groups when seeking to establish their dominance. “
“LGBT people face enormous security challenges in many parts of Colombia because, despite legal progress, no major cultural changes have taken place,” says Sánchez-Garzoli.
‘They are trying to silence everyone here’
The violence has led some members of the LGBTQ community in Buenaventura to hide their identities in order to protect themselves.
“I had to pretend I was heterosexual,” says Kevin Victoria, 25. “I had to hide who I was for fear of armed gangs.”
Others refuse to hide who they are. Without state or local police protection, the Montenegro transexual says the best way to deal with assaults by armed gangs is to ignore them.
“If I’m walking down the street and see a member of an armed gang and he yells at me or insults me, the first thing I do is ignore him,” she says.
Gabriel Zamora is an LGBTQ activist who participates in a theater group that tells the stories of local victims in Buenaventura. Zamora, 23, lives in a wooden house on stilts over the sea in one of the city’s most dangerous areas. He says he heard people being murdered in his neighborhood and that dismemberments are happening again.
“They are trying to silence everyone here,” Zamora says. “There are people in the community who have had problems with criminal groups, because we [LGBTQ people] bring ideas about art and culture. Zamora explains that armed gangs oppose anything that takes away from their pool of young people as potential recruits.
“The discrimination against the LGBT community here will never end,” Zamora says.
“We survive …”
Abandoned by family members, many of Buenaventura’s LGBTQ community have developed their own support system. Diaz, dressed in an elegant red and white floral jumpsuit, smiles and looks around the room at those sitting next to her.
“They are my family. We are a family and we all support each other. And here we are together and we want to move forward,” says Diaz. “We survive… We survive, but the truth is that it is. painful.”
“It was not easy to be [LGBTQ] population and try to make people understand that we are human beings and that we need support and understanding, ”says Diaz.
But, like many, Montenegro has little hope that the lives of LGBTQ people in the struggling city will change anytime soon.
“Here in Buenaventura… they won’t see us as we are. They will always see us as the worst thing there is, ”she said.