Last Wednesday, May 19, Colombia witnessed one of those scenarios never before recorded in its history, that day also began the biggest crisis that the logistics business has experienced since its consolidation. A group of criminals violated the security systems and forced their way into the TCBuen port in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, despite the company’s efforts to protect the facilities; they had even blocked the access road with containers.
The port operation, which had been going on with difficulty since the beginning of the national strike, had to be stopped and the personnel evacuated by sea. At the same time, a group of the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD) accompanied by the Gaula Militar tried to control the situation.
The managers of the port Aguadulce de Compas decided to transport the terminal personnel in company buses back to their homes. However, one of the vehicles was intercepted by criminals on their way to the city center, robbed of their belongings and threatened to harm them.
The vandalism and invasions were not repeated in the following days, but in Buenaventura there is a tense calm. The Mayor’s Office decreed measures such as curfew and dry law, and also increased the presence of the security forces. At the close of this edition, uniformed members of the Colombian Navy and the National Police continued to guard the access roads to the port terminals, both by land and by sea, following the president’s orders.
However, the situation is far from being resolved. In the midst of the silence of the companies in charge of the operation of the ports, dozens of workers received audios with threats to their lives announcing “measures reflected in blood”, according to Caracol Radio. Days ago there was already a fear among the personnel for their safety, many did not show up for work or could not arrive due to the public order situation, which delays operations.
Buenaventura is Colombia’s most important port, moving half of the country’s export cargo and is the main destination for ships coming from Asia. In 2020, its three terminals (Sociedad Portuaria de Buenaventura, TCBuen and Aguadulce) handled almost 19 million tons of imports and exports.
At the terminals, human and electronic surveillance and the presence of the security forces have been reinforced. Colonel Wisner Paz, commander of the Marine Infantry Brigade, confirmed to this media that a Unified Command Post was installed to deal with situations of public disorder that may arise in Buenaventura.
The Ministry of Defense issued a resolution in which it reduced the level of protection of the port of Buenaventura, which had been increased to level two on May 19, considering that “it is possible to maintain risk levels that allow the development of maritime and port activities in the region”.toma Quiñones, former director of the Buenaventura port society, believes that it was the best decision, considering that maintaining a high level of risk projects a negative image of Colombia and its logistics abroad that is difficult to correct in the short term.
This did not prevent the world’s largest shipping lines, such as Maersk, Cosco, Evergreen Marine, CMA CGM, Hamburg Sud and Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), from closing bookings for the Buenaventura terminal, including to Colombia until further notice, due to the difficult situation currently being experienced due to the national strike, according to the ports. Vessels with urgent shipments in Colombia will be diverted to Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta or Turbo, others will decide to continue to Ecuador or Peru.
At the same time, international cargo agency service companies, such as Transborder, told their clients that they were looking for alternatives for cargo handling while the service was reactivated and the public order situation stabilized.
“It has never happened before that they forced their way into a port facility, In the past there were other stoppages, but the shipping lines always touched Buenaventura because the terminals were not affected. What is happening now has a connotation of violence and the shipping lines do not want to put the ships or the people at risk”, concluded Quiñonez. The immediate consequence is that the shipping lines’ routes will be disconfigured, which necessarily implies cost overruns for importers and exporters and, consequently, for consumers, who will have to pay for more expensive products.
The fact is that Colombia has already failed to meet its commercial commitments due to the difficulties that have arisen for the withdrawal of goods. Added to the situation with the shipping lines is the fact that the port terminals in Buenaventura are reaching their maximum capacity, so they are having problems receiving or storing containers or additional bulk cargo, given the difficulty of moving products into the country’s interior.
“The level of storage in the ports is very worrying, it is very little cargo that they will be able to continue receiving while the unblocking of the road is not achieved and cargo transportation returns to normal. At this moment there is an evaluation by the shipping companies on what will happen, on their cargo dispatches to Buenaventura”, said Captain Javier Gómez, maritime authority at the port of Buenaventura in an interview with this newspaper.
At the beginning of this week a caravan of trucks guarded by the security forces was organized in which 60 vehicles left, and in spite of the accompaniment, at least 20 of them were trapped in a shootout and drivers opted to abandon their cargo, which has fueled their fear of providing the service. Last Wednesday, during the invasion of the terminals, the attackers also assaulted the parking lots destined for the trucks, stole and vandalized.
This prompted the Federation of Freight Transport Businessmen (Fedetranscarga) to request the insurance companies, Fasecolda, not to collect or recover coverage for loss of goods and looting. “The cargo transporters in general throughout the country acted in good faith and with the conviction that operations would be duly safeguarded,” said the union in a letter to the government.
However, the problems are just beginning. Captain Luis Martinez, pilot pilot in Buenaventura (helps ships in the maneuvers to enter the port and put the ship in position for disembarkation), said that until noon on Friday the reception of cargo happened normally, on average four ships arrive daily. This is because the larger vessels arrive in Buenaventura from Asia after 30 or 40 days sailing and the container ships spend about 20 days at sea before embarking. The effect will be felt with delay. It is expected that in the next few days the lack of ships will start to be visible, “arrivals will become more distant”, he commented.
The Colombian Federation of International Trade Logistics Agents (Fitac) reports losses of $40,000 million for the 90,000 tons of cargo held up alone. Total damages have not yet been calculated. The union made an emergency call to the National Government due to “the unprecedented affectation that logistics and foreign trade have experienced” and expressed concern about the serious situation. “The sector today is seriously affected by the security conditions, mobility and vandalism in several regions of the country, particularly the southwest of the country, where Colombia’s main port, Buenaventura, is located, today plagued by crime,” said Miguel Angel Espinosa, president of Fitac.
“These are incalculable costs for logistics due to acts of vandalism and terrorism. Our obligation as a guild is to make it known that this situation can no longer wait. One more day of blockades in the port terminals of Buenaventura would mean tens of billions in losses in merchandise, investment and direct and indirect jobs, a situation that would leave our member companies with no room for maneuver and with a very high risk of business continuity,” he warned
The most recent report of the Port Society of Buenaventura, as of Friday, May 21, shows that since April 28, when the national strike began, “there has been evidence of a significant backlog of cargo”. The terminal said that it continues to make important efforts to receive the import cargo that arrives daily, but asked for a rapid progress in the dialogues to find a solution to the crisis.
In exports alone, more than 16,900 tons of coffee, 20,400 tons of sugar, 1,880 tons of solid bulk, 2,250 tons of general cargo and 48,460 tons of containerized cargo have stopped leaving the terminal. In imports, the figures approximate 188,300 tons of solid bulk, 99,000 tons of general cargo and 169,200 tons of containerized cargo, for a total of 456,500 tons of cargo unable to reach its destination.
But the damage goes beyond that. Buenaventura’s economy moves mainly through the port, services such as hotels, restaurants, automotive mechanics or sale of auto parts depend mostly on foreign trade, not to mention the generation of employment at all levels, as it is estimated that around the ports about 20,000 people are employed every day. There is also the threat that this situation will eventually spread to the other terminals, after years of efforts and investments by the companies to improve the competitiveness of their businesses.