I yanked a story yesterday about what happened to me when I covered a riot in Ecuador.  Today, I see that the town of Buenaventura has gone Somalia.  By which I mean, the joint has had a total breakdown of central authority, and the streets are controlled by the machinegun-toting gangs, vying for control of the drug trade.

This is Buenaventura, a city where drug-traffickers and demobilized veterans of Colombia’s political violence are warring with a seriously underpowered police force in a struggle that has killed hundreds in the streets this year.

“They all are fighting for control of this zone because it’s close to the sea and that, for them, is strategic,” said Londono, who has run this church for eight years. “The young people look to them for jobs as a narco, an informer or a hit man.”

Some 215 miles southwest of Bogota, the city of 300,000 is the country’s largest port. It’s from here that the coffee is exported and the imported cars roll in.

The port is also a key way station for the world’s largest cocaine industry. Some 20 tons have been captured in and around Buenaventura this year, a third of all the cocaine netted along the Pacific coast.

Being poor and having a port make Buenaventura a tempting place for drug traffickers, said Roy Barrera, the region’s congressman. “This perverse marriage of these armed groups and drug traffickers has turned the town into a ghetto in the hands of the mafia.”

Lying halfway down Colombia’s 815-mile Pacific coast, Buenaventura is its biggest slum. According to the government, some 80 percent of the mostly Afro-Colombian population survives on less than $3 a day, compared with a national rate of 50 percent.

Killings have doubled in two years to top 300 in 2006 — 24 times the homicide rate of New York City. And that doesn’t include the unknown numbers who have disappeared.

The authorities appear to have little control over the daily slaughter.

Ahh, nostalgia. Apparently, in a cruel trick of fate, what was supposed to bring peace and stability to the country turns out to have only made things worse.  The right-wing paramilitary death squads accepted a settlement, which means that the thugs and gunmen they used to employ are all sitting around with nothing to do …

Well, almost nothing, that is. This is a lesson that the U.S. is having to learn in Iraq, as well. When you have a generation of guys who have grown up knowing only war and killing, and you take away the structures (army, paramilitary group) that used to give them cohesion and a common goal, then you leave them sitting around with a lot of time on their hands and only one thing that they know how to do really well.  It’s not long before an opportunistic criminal comes along and offers them a gig.

It’s like the bad noir movies of the 70s. Former soldiers who can’t acclimate to civilian life turn mercenary or turn criminal – not that there’s much difference between the two, really.

Things have gotten so bad in Buenaventura that Bishop Quintero was forced to flee the city after he denounced the drug traffickers.

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