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Logistics as violence

by Alke Jenss on February 27, 2020
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Global infrastructures of trade have a massive impact on people’s lives. No one made me more aware of this – and of the deadly effects they have had – than Deborah Cowen’s book The Deadly Life of Logistics.

My article ‘Global Flows and Everyday Violence in Urban Space’ on the port-city of Buenaventura on Colombia’s Pacific coast in Political Geography makes a similar argument. More than just making peoples’ lives more insecure, the global flows running through the port are a condition for violence in the wider city – one of the most violent in Colombia, with repeated waves of soaring homicide rates through the past 20 years.

Infrastructural expansion and logistics are becoming more central to social sciences interested both in dynamic and context-specific power relations and the structural conditions of the global capitalist economy. Very often, though, we focus on infrastructures at logistics centres and nodes, neglecting that logistics have long implied radical changes in social relations far beyond those centres of trade. My article speaks to a number of other takes on infrastructure and logistics from a critical perspective (see this curated collection).

My article’s contribution is twofold: First, I show how violence is productive; it shapes urban space through a variety of agents and social forces, their routines and practices. Social actors produce city space through different everyday practices, while uneven patterns of violence in turn shape these practices, particularly dwellers’ movement patterns. If everyday violence shapes urban spatial practice, how do inhabitants cope, adapt and resist, and through their actions still produce urban space? Inhabitants are neighbours of the port, and very intimate ones as container ships loom over their houses. The port shapes their everyday practices. Dominant media depictions, however, construct them as an ‘other’ to the port, detached from global economy and incapable of profiting from the global connections it provides.

Second, this contribution explores the role of global flows of goods in violent urban space. Apart from social actors, urban space is made and shaped by structural factors implicit in capitalist expansion and contraction. Social actors produce fractured city space not isolated or separate from, but intimately linked to the global economy’s circuits. The port’s use as a drug trade gateway is insufficient to explain Buenaventura’s waves of violence.

Buenaventura is an exemplary case of both a city of violence and a global trade hub. When I started working on the case, I experienced an irritation similar to what appears in Cowen’s work: urban violence is so often thought of as ‘local’, rarely do we question that the conditions for violence are located within the urban realm itself. Homicides are executed by local gangs or some diffusely defined organised crime, but are perceived to be isolated from the global connections. In the Colombian press, the violence of urban Buenaventura is often attributed to the ‘turbulent’ Pacific region, imagined to be decoupled from state institutions and global business investing in Colombia.

Instead, I argue, the talk of competitiveness, port expansion, and global investments on the Pacific coast contribute to violence. For instance, the Masterplan Buenaventura 2050, a giant endeavour to revamp the city and make it ‘more adequate’ for the requirements of those actors that Colombia imagines to attract through the port as a logistics platform, reproduces experiences of violence.

It does so not just by structural similarities, I find, but through semi-forced relocation, erasure of spatial memory, the radical transformation of livelihoods, and reinforcing racial stereotypes. First, inhabitants have testified they were pressured to leave in the past by state officials, claiming they were living in a high-risk area, and intra-urban forced displacement takes place due to forced disappearances, homicides and torture in specific neighbourhoods, which, as inhabitants claim, are the very same sites of port expansion. This way, forced displacement through violence by so-called criminal gangs, and state relocation, eerily interact. Second, some sites of port expansion, activists have claimed, were burial sites for the remains of forced disappeared. Building terminals on these sites has curtailed any further investigations into this claim. Third, the rapidly expanding number of containers being unloaded and ships changing wares in the various terminals, has transformed life in the city beyond recognition, from heavy traffic to the prohibition of fishing in the bay area. Fourth, there is a decidedly colonial, racist element to the plan’s presentation of the city as lagging behind and being a violent place that contradicts the success of the port; and this oft-repeated representation itself legitimises port expansions no matter what its actual effects on inhabitants’ daily lives. All these everyday effects of the expanding port (and logistical integration into global economy) provide grounds for more urban violence.

My analysis of the violent production of urban space stems from understanding violence as integral to everyday experiences and to urban power relations, based on Coronil and Skurski’s introduction to States of Violence. Coronil’s work on the Magical State is much more well-known, but in States of Violence, they argue that “an analytical perspective informed by the legacy of colonialism” recognises violence as part of the everyday. The violent colonial past informs Buenaventura’s every day, while the contemporary coloniality of power shapes the way the city is represented. Everyday practices by different actors involved in macro- and micro-decisions shape urban space. Actors and social forces with more or less power in urban politics employ different strategies, and some do this violently. It is ongoing physical violence I am interested in (beyond the memories of past wars) which imposes limits to navigating cities on those that live there.

Una voz contra el olvido-Paso Internacional from PASO International on Vimeo.

Again, as urbanites living in a violent context also produce urban space through everyday strategies, I find Buenaventura’s inhabitants not only map safe spaces for neighbours and friends, accompany each other in the burden of grief, and have to adapt their movement to the violent context, but also employ spatial strategies in an organised and decidedly political way. The ‘civic strike’ of 2017 was one such strategy: Blocking port infrastructure, initiatives report it completely changed urban space (temporarily). This massive mobilisation precedes the current #colombiadesperto protests, it showed a general civic strike (not necessarily led by unions, but by a wide range of initiatives) was possible.

Alke Jenss
Alke Jenss is a researcher at Arnold-Bergstraesser Institute in Freiburg. She holds a PhD from the Sociology Institute at Philipps University Marburg, Germany. Her research is situated at the intersection of critical political economy, state theory, urban (in-)security and development studies with particular reference to Latin America.

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