Claiming victory over 'chop houses' in Colombia

Claiming victory over 'chop houses' in Colombia

In October 2016, In Their Lifetime (ITL) board member Melanie Farquharson and Chair David Paterson joined Christian Aid’s International Director Paul Valentin to witness the growing impact of humanitarian spaces in Buenaventura.

The country’s history of violence has been well documented in the media in recent months. Decades of conflict have left over 200,000 people dead and over five million displaced* from their homes – a number surpassed only by Syria.

The timing of the trip was significant, with the recent signing of the peace deal between the government and the FARC – and the subsequent vote by the Colombian people not to implement it.

Communities living in fear

Buenaventura is known as the most violent in Colombia, but the conflict there is more complex, with an almost constant fight for territory and control between different criminal gangs and paramilitaries.

Residents who show any signs of resisting intimidation from these groups often disappear or are brutally murdered in the notorious ‘casas de pique’, or ‘chop houses’. Communities live in fear.

Humanitarian spaces

It’s within these communities that ITL is helping to pioneer an approach that claims back areas of the city, to free them from the constant threat of violence. The first ‘humanitarian space’ in Puerto Nayero was established over a year ago in coordination with the local community – a place where the carrying of arms by civilians is banned.

The spaces are set up with support from Christian Aid partners and are granted protection by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The legal framework offered by the international court and international observers, including the presence of our partner Peace Brigades International, add critical weight to deterring potential perpetrators, knowing that any violence would attract international attention.

‘What we heard a number of times from residents was that the sign at the entrance to the space with Christian Aid’s logo on it is so important. It says that the international community is watching.’
Melanie Farquharson
ITL board member

In the time since the humanitarian space was established, there have been no murders. In fact, as explained by one of its residents, Martha, shops are now thriving and children are not afraid to play on the streets. 


‘We stood alongside Martha, one of the residents of Puerto Nayero, outside one of the former chop houses who told us she would never have been able to go out onto the street before.'
Melanie Farquharson
ITL Board member

Expanding the programme

It’s off the back of this success, that the humanitarian space is now growing – to an adjacent small community port called Punta Icaco, home to 138 residents. It had in the past been a main landing point for fishing boats where indigenous people used to trade goods with city dwellers. But extortion and intimidation had virtually halted any commercial activity.

The plan is now to revive the port and re-start the market.

'It’s not just a case of keeping the bad guys out – some of the gang members are family members of the residents of the humanitarian space. Community cohesion is essential.'

David Paterson
ITL Chair

The formal declaration of Punta Icaco as part of the humanitarian space, which coincided with the visit, was observed with a mass held in front of a shop where a shop-keeper was murdered last year for his refusal to pay extortion money.

Significantly, the launch was attended and celebrated by members from both the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, two groups who have historically been divided. Children from both communities performed traditional dances.

During the celebration there was also a sense of caution from the residents – many of them choosing to observe the day’s events from their homes. This was a reminder of the hard work required by Christian Aid partners and residents to achieve the same peace and safety felt in Puerto Nayero. 

‘One of the residents we met wouldn’t even mention the name of the gang who were operating in the adjacent street for fear of recrimination.'
Melanie Farquharson
ITL board member

What we've learned

Taking the learnings from the work that has been done so far, there is real cause for hope that Buenaventura, and, in time, other conflict-affected areas of Colombia, can be transformed to places of peace.

Join our webinar

Hear more about the impact that your contributions are making to the lives of people in Buenaventura from Paul Valentin, Christian Aid International Director, and Christian Aid’s Country Manager, Thomas Mortensen, at our first ITL webinar at 1pm on 25 November 2016.

Email to join our webinar at 1pm on 25 November.


*Source for figures: our partner ABColombia

Find out more
About In Their Lifetime
About In Their Lifetime
In Their Lifetime (ITL) is a seed fund that enables Christian Aid to pioneer new approaches to fight poverty and to scale up the solutions that work best.
Tea potential in Bangladesh
Tea potential in Bangladesh
Christian Aid partnered with Tradecraft to launch the EqualiTea project - working with tea farmers in a northern region of Bangladesh.
Gender-based violence in Zimbabwe
A brand new ITL project trialling the impact of partnering with faith leaders in tackling gender-based violence in Zimbabwe.

For further information about In Their Lifetime or to become an ITL supporter please contact: