On Tuesday, August 27, Jernoc Wobert was freed by Colombian guerrillas. The Canadian geologist and Vice-President of Braeval Mining Co. had been kidnapped by the National Liberation Army (or El Ejército de la Liberación Nacional, ELN). The ELN had kidnapped him seven months ago with 3 other Colombians and 2 Peruvians. The Latin Americans were released a few weeks after they had all been taken from Norosí in the Serranía de San Lucas in the south of Bolívar, but the Canadian remained.
As a condition to his release, the ELN demanded that the Canadian and Colombian government investigate the company in question for having allegedly taken land illegally from communities in Bolívar. On the other hand, the Colombian government, who has been negotiating a peace deal with the largest rebel group (the FARC), since November, predicated any negotiations with the ELN on his release. The ELN had previously expressed interest in negotiating with the national government, and the FARC had called on the government to also negotiate with the second largest guerrilla group. A few months ago when the eleños tried to enter the peace talks in Havana, they were turned away. Today, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that “everything is ready” for talks with the ELN.
Wobert’s release by the ELN to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC, who is a neutral party in most high-profile hostage hand-overs in Colombia), was seen as a “humanitarian gesture” on the part of the rebels in order to demonstrate good faith in what could be a peace process. However, Wobert’s kidnapping (and release) are actually microcosms of much larger dynamics of the Colombian armed conflict, and of the mining investment that largely defines Canada’s relationship to Colombia.
Who are the ELN?
The ELN began in the early 1960s by radical University students who organized peasants. They were inspired by Marxism, the Cuban Revolution, and Liberation Theology. The ELN, unlike the FARC, actually have been slow to get as involved in drug trafficking. Nevertheless like the FARC, they commit crimes against humanity and war crimes such as kidnapping and killing civilians, recruiting minors/practicing forced conscription, planting land mines (which is against the Ottawa Treaty) and forced displacement. However, the ELN are most well known for their attacks against infrastructure (particularly attacking oil pipelines), which have increased this year. They are Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group.
The ELN’s political discourse and military actions against multinational investment in Colombia, particularly in the extractive sector, is part of what scared foreign investment away during much of the 1990s when guerrillas retained significant control over large parts of the country. Like the FARC, The ELN would charge “revolutionary taxes” on businesses (vacunas), threaten and kidnap large-land owners and company executives, and would carry out infrastructure attacks.
A significant proportion of the counterinsurgency campaign of the paramilitaries and the army directly preceding and during the government of ex-President Alvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) was to “pacify” regions so as to make them safe enough to encourage foreign investment. For example, a main focus of Plan Colombia was securing the Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline which had been attacked on several occasions by the guerrillas.
The ELN is currently in dire straits; it was weakened by the counterinsurgency much more than the FARC and they have currently between 2-3,000 fighters. There are few parts of the national territory where they are the dominant armed group (oil-rich Arauca, for example), and many see the ELN now as a spent force who is desperate for a negotiated settlement out of the armed conflict.
The Serranía de San Lucas, where Wobert was taken, has been disputed by the ELN, the army, and the paramilitaries for decades given its geostrategic significance. Over at the Tyee, Colombian journalist Sebastian Salamaca writes:
“[The ELN] decided a good place to start a revolution was the Serranía de San Lucas. Its rugged geography and lack of state presence made it ideal for organizing and gathering strength.
It took 20 years for them to control the area. By the 1980s, the ELN dominated the region. Their mixture of Marxism, liberation theology, and community activism helped them win the partial support of the population. They also regularly violated international law by blowing up pipelines and taking hostages.
In the late 1990s the ELN faced a potent foe, as Carlos Castaño, head of the far-right paramilitary forces in Colombia, or AUC, made it his obsession to take back the territory from the guerrillas.
The AUC knew about the strategic importance of the Serranía: whoever controlled it would profit from the massive cocaine traffic to the Caribbean and the huge gold deposits that were being discovered. Moreover, seizing the Serranía would ensure access to the largest watercourse in Colombia, the Magdalena River.”
What is Canada’s history in the South of Bolívar?
The Coastal department of Bolívar
In an earlier post I remarked how the Canadian government, through funding the Canadian Energy Research Institute, helped re-write and liberalize Colombia’s mining code in 2001.
In Francisco Ramírez Cuellar’s “The Profits of Extermination”, he also outlines how in the Serranía de San Lucas in the South of Bolívar, in land that was initially titled to a local elite family, over 90 mining associations started to work the land through artisanal practices. Under Colombian law, if land is unused by the owner but is being used by someone else, technically, artisanal miners for example have up to two years to ask for titles to that land. Around the early 1990s, a Canadian mining company (then called Conquistador mines) became interested in the gold-rich area.
According to Ramírez, they hired a lawyer to negotiate the land with the small-scale miners on behalf of the Illeras-Palacios (the family who claimed the land). This same lawyer, interestingly, helped draft the 2001 mining code with CERI. After a visit from the Minister of mines, the artisanal miners backed away from negotiations and they gave the land to the mining company.
In 1997, the paramilitaries of the Peasant Self-Defence Forces of Córdoba and Urabá or the ACCU, who would later become the AUC, came to the Serranía. Their stated reasons for doing so were to control the mines, to get rid of miners who were “collaborating with the guerrillas”, and “guarantee the entrance of multinationals who would create jobs”. The paramilitary incursion destroyed over 10 towns in the region, massacred over 400 people, raped both men and women, and left several supposed “guerrilla collaborators” dismembered. Until 2008 over 94,000 people were displaced from the region because of the violence.
It is also worth noting that the Congressman representing the region at the time of the deal and the drafting of the new mining code has since been investigated for having ties to paramilitary groups.
Braeval and Conquistador mines are not the only Canadian companies with interests in the south of Bolívar. B2Gold, a Canadian gold company in the region, claims that it can only operate there with guarantees of security from the Colombian army. As mentioned in a report by Interpares and Mining Watch Canada, the Vice-President of B2Gold has said that non-indigenous communities have no right to reject mining projects on their territory, and alarmingly, that FEDEAGROMISBOL had been “contaminated” by guerrillas. As any student of Colombian history will know, these kinds of accusations can lead to violence against FEDEAGROMISBOL by state security and paramilitary forces (which is what has occurred).
What do the locals think?
This informative report from Colombia Informa which interviewed community members and associations in the south of the Bolívar state gives an idea into what perceptions were on the ground of the kidnapping and the release of the Canadian executive.
The Agro-Mining Federation of the South of Bolívar (FEDEAGROMISBOL) is an umbrella organization which represents 34 associations of small-scale farmers and artisanal miners in the region has for years been stigmatized as being sympathetic to the guerrillas by the army and the paramilitaries (and has consequently suffered violence against its members). Nevertheless, the group actually had put out a communiqué which rejected the kidnappings carried out by the ELN of the miners and emphasized the release of the Colombians who appeared to be members of FEDEAGROMISBOL. They also said that the kidnappings were “a direct consequence of the indiscriminate natural resource exploitation policy promoted by the Colombian government, affecting the south of Bolívar and of the handing over of our natural resource to large transnational capital”.
The locals they interviewed emphasized how the kidnapping of the Canadian by the ELN made life more difficult in the region as it invited increased repression from the government security forces. Some community members say that they supported the actions of the ELN, as it “halted the [government’s] mining development plans”, and who felt that this development plan is more for the benefit of multinational companies than their communities who have always been marginalized by the national government.
Other community members expressed their opposition to the kidnapping, saying that it furthers the stigmatization of local community organizing as being complicit or supportive of the guerrillas. Others mention how one of the reason two FEDEAGROMISBOL members were kidnapped was because they were helping the foreign miners behind the backs of the community.
Other community members mention how FEDEAGROMISBOL was able to win more than 10,000 hectares of land from the Lleras-Palacios (the local elite family mentioned earlier) through “pure social struggle”, but that speaking out was extremely difficult given the intense military and paramilitary repression to community organizing and dissidence.
Why was Wobert kidnapped and why does it matter?
Whereas the Colombians and the Peruvians were let free relatively soon, Wobert was kept by the ELN until Tuesday (he had been kidnapped since January), because he could have been a bargaining chip at any eventual peace talks (or even, the key to starting a dialogue). At the same time, the ELN rejects the presence of foreign extractive companies in Colombia, who they see as imperialists, and therefore wanted to retain Wobert until Braeval gave up its mining titles in the region.
Braeval actually has since renounced its four titles in the region; the company’s press release however did not mention the kidnapping.
The ruthless paramilitary expansion in the early 2000s in the region left many with the impression that the region had effectively been pacified, and that although in the most remote areas the ELN remained, the Serranía was perceived to be relatively safe for investment.
Despite the fact that a Colombian government report study which says that industrial mining should not occur in zones of armed conflict (such as the Serranía) junior-based mining companies (who are often Canadian, and are the most likely to take on very risky projects) continue to explore Colombian communities that exist in a context of extreme physical and social vulnerability.
The Canadian government, with its naming of Colombia as a priority for CIDA aid, and the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA), is keen on having a stable (or “pacified”) Colombian countryside in which our companies can extract resources without being threatened. By the same token, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has made resource extraction a pillar of his national economic development strategy. Wobert’s kidnapping is a reminder that despite the strength of the paramilitaries and the Washington-funded Colombian army, the guerrillas, despite their losses, can still be a threat to multinational investment, and that Colombia is not as “safe” or “open” for business as it might seem. Kidnappings did not end with Uribe’s “Democratic Security”, and they probably won’t end with Santos.
The logical inverse of this premise (that the guerrillas are still a threat to investment), is that more pacification/repression of the guerrillas is necessary. Indeed, when Wobert was kidnapped, the Colombian government responded by sending 600 troops to the region. Wobert’s kidnapping reminds us that the steps of foreigners in Colombia’s most fragile and violent parts may provoke actions and counter-reactions by armed groups looking to show their dominance in any given region. And more of then than not, these struggles will take place on the backs of civilians (and sometimes in the name or interest of investment). As this Semana report notes, they allege that some companies have signed security/protection deals with the Colombian army, and that artisanal mining opponents to the investment of multinationals, particularly members of FEDEAGROMISBOL, have been systematically murdered.
Therefore, in this context, it must be asked whether Canadian mining investment in Colombia is worth the risk both that it poses to the Canadians who go to Colombia in search of resource riches, but more importantly, to the Colombians who call those communities home and ultimately have to live with the consequences of the instability and repression that mining investment might provoke.