Tag Archives: Colombia

The Ghosts of War & Questions of Peace

I could not sleep last night. I edited this post throughout the day but wrote it in the middle of the night, unable to sleep without first writing something. I was truly struck, dumbfounded, by the news that both the government of Colombia and the self-styled Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia  (FARC) are asking the UN and the CELAC to help monitor a bilateral ceasefire and a definitive end to hostilities. 

 

The news itself is not shocking – the peace process in Havana between the insurgents and the government has resulted in periodical historical breakthroughs (a deal on transitional justice, unprecedented participation of various victims’ groups in a peace process, etc). However, the location of this event within the 51 year history of war between the FARC and the State gave me pause.

 

For the first time in a generation, the dream of peace with Colombia’s most important rebel group is no longer a fantasy, but a tangible, realistic possibility. Many Colombians, including myself, would honestly never thought they would live to see this. Too many have not. Perhaps Colombia is starting to deal with its figurative ghosts.

 

I offer some reflections on the history that is being made here, on the war. For Colombians, one’s social location defines one’s relationship to the armed conflict, and I write this from the relative comfort of the Global North; part of my privilege is that the war is fortunately not a lived reality for me, it’s not an inescapable totality ending or interrupting life but glimpses of a brutal phenomenon in a distant supposed “homeland” to be escaped by merely putting down the book, putting back the letter, clicking past the headline, or turning off the television. Indeed, reflecting on the precarity of other lives in this war is a luxury testifying to my privilege produced by the very same violence.

 

A final caveat – I cannot and hope not to speak to our personal ghosts of this war. The spirits, memories, hauntings, denials, or our personal stories of war, or our connections to victims, perpetrators, and everyone in between must be respected; collective processes of attempting to reconcile with a history of brutality cannot coerce, erase, or appropriate personal narratives. I want to address collective ghosts, if we can speak of such a thing.

 

My thoughts on this moment in – and making – history.

 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez ended his Nobel masterpiece with this:

 

“[Races] condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth”.

 

This passage marked me; haunted me. It made me think, uncritically and pessimistically (as One Hundred Years is all about pessimism) that perhaps Colombia was condemned to war. From the genocide of the Indigenous peoples in the Spanish Conquests, the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans brought to work in Colombia’s mines, the wars for the word (but not the true condition) of “independence”, and the later conflicts between various ruling parties (depicted in Colombia’s most well-known book) to the conflicts of the present, for the last 500 years, violence has been the norm and peace has been the exception. Peace has been an interruption.

 

Now peace with the most important insurgency in the country is within reach. A momentum is building behind peace that will hopefully make for a significant interruption.

 

It’s hard to say what “peace” is or what it can or will be. It is something that will have to be struggled, defended, questioned, and collectively built. However, it is clear to me what peace with this rebel group will not be.
Peace with the FARC will not mean justice for the over 7 million victims of Colombia’s internal conflict. It will probably not give new opportunities to the young rebels who were raised on waging war. It will not bring back the dead, the disappeared, or return the land to the dispossessed. It will not restore the ties of Afro-descendent/Black and Indigenous peoples to ancestral lands that have been severed by the conflict. It will not heal the injured or the maimed. It will not bring back the years lost for those kidnapped by the rebels. It will not bring truth, or any kind of agreement on what actually took place during the war. It will not mean peace with the other major insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN). It will not mean peace with the drug cartels, nor peace with the paramilitaries/private armies of landed elites that displace peasants. It will not mean an end to the “Dirty War” of selective killings of labour union leaders, community leaders, dissidents, or activists; most of the nation will only come to know its  leaders through reports of their deaths, and not engagements with their lives. It will not mean peace with the violences of inequality, economic exploitation, nor land dispossession by the multinationals. It will not end Colombia’s rampant classist, sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic violences. It will not bring true democracy. And despite the undoubted prominence to come of this term if an agreement is reached, it will not bring reconciliation, and we will not all forgive each others’ atrocities.

 

 

A Colombia at peace with the FARC will only be a utopia in the marketing materials of the government to tourists and foreign investors.

 

Peace is not an answer. It may not even be an attainable or definable condition. However, if war has been the permanent answer that Colombia has had to many of its ills, peace can be an interrupting question.

 

Maybe – just maybe – some communities can – for the first time in over half a century – not wake up to another day of the horrors of of a conflict in which both sides wage war against them, and no side fights for them. For some communities, perhaps machine gun fire can abandon the soundscape, letting private whispers demanding justice to be cried out in plazas. Perhaps, for some, sophisticated American smart bombs and crude rebel landmines can stop dismembering bodies and communities. Perhaps womens’ bodies will no longer be soldiers’ spoils of war, objects attached to conquered territory. Perhaps “To Disappear” will be a verb with less currency in the popular lexicon. Perhaps some will no longer have to obey the gaze of the rifles. Perhaps, for some, declared neutrality or suspected partisanship will no longer invite destruction.

 

Perhaps the magnitude of risking one’s life will no longer be a spectre on the minutiae of necessary daily movements. Perhaps emptying territories of soldiers and rebels will allow communities to create ‘geographies without terror’. Perhaps some of the calm felt in the cities’ shopping malls and country clubs can leap through the social chasm to ‘The Other Colombia’, to the overexploited ruralities who have experienced the waves of massacres, bombings, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, militarized sexual violences forgotten or denied by the urban elite. Perhaps the urban elite can stop ‘discovering’ their own national geography by news of the most recent massacre in an otherwise forgotten and nameless small rural town. Perhaps we can begin to not only remember, but begin to know  these places by their names and complexities beyond the abjectivity of their tragedies. Perhaps comforting national narratives can be shaken by the impossibility of writing this history of war, perhaps – appropriately – history can become difficult to tell.

 

Maybe – just maybe – the entire country can follow the lead of many courageous movements and communities in the interminable work of demanding justice, of speaking of and to the unspeakable horrors, of confronting the incredibly present spectres of a past haunted by violence. Perhaps we can begin to engage our national ghosts. We may never exorcise all of them completely – nor should we; as memory can be act of resistance, and amnesia can dehumanize. But perhaps we can begin to learn how to live with our national ghosts, how to allow them to live with us. It will never be complete.

 

The armed conflict is irreducible to narratives, it is an extremely complex condition, however, these help motivate it. The war has not only produced hauntings, it has been produced by them.

 

Slavoj Zizek says that all revolutions attempt to redeem the ghosts of past failed revolutions.

 

The Marxist FARC insurgency has been haunted by the ghosts of dispossessed peasants and a repressed Left in the 40s. This spirit has been nourished by later State repression. The rebels’ religion of a people’s revolution against the owners and exploiters would be corrupted by the demons of drug trafficking, kidnapping,  human rights abuses, becoming more arrogant, and turning against the population they claimed to represent.

 

The State’s counter-insurgency is also motivated by spectres from Colombia, and from other lands. For Colombia’s patron, the United States, the spectre of another Cuban or Sandinista Revolution in “its backyard” is terrifying, abhorrent, unacceptable and impermissible. This spectre has gripped Bogota and Washington into a deep obsession: the aspirations of alternatives to their social orders were systematically disciplined by attacking the bodies who hold them. Rallying cries for change were muted by the roar of repression, imposing silences of terror. These suspicions continue today.

 

The peace process is trying to purge Colombia of these spirits. However, if they remain on the land, hungry enough, being able to feed on something, they may still haunt the future.

 

Therefore, perhaps this peace is an illusion; a disguise for a new war which is not yet visible. Maybe the foundational violences of colonialism and/or the social stratification of Colombian society will produce new militarized social, political or criminal conflicts. It could be that certain ghosts are not ready to be laid to rest. Perhaps Marquez is right about our condemnation to history.

 

As the great American street poet Tupac Shakur once said:

 

“We can’t have peace until we all get a piece”.

 

As they say, only time will tell. Hopefully the future will answer some of the questions of the past…(or better yet, question some of its answers).

 

Let me end by coming full circle with Gabo Marquez: One of the turning points in One Hundred Years of Solitude is the Banana Workers Massacre. This was an actual massacre that was perpetrated against a labour action by workers of the United Fruit Company in Colombia and between 3 and 3,000 people were killed in 1929. It is emblematic of a larger history  in Colombia of repressing organized labour through murder for the interests and designs of (usually foreign) capital. In Marquez’ fiction, only one member of the community knows about the massacre – everyone else in Macondo is told by the authorities that nothing happened. No one believes the survivor. Marquez himself has said that “perhaps only 3 or 4 people died”. Was it 3, or 3,000? Again, Marquez’s genius has much to teach the Colombian peace process. If war is a contest of soldiers, peace will be a contest of surviving memories. We may never have answers for our ghosts.

 

And like the silence in Macondo of the massacre, perhaps some stories will remain too true to tell………

 

 

 

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Filed under Colombia, English, Transitional Justice/Justicia Transicional

An Election For Peace? Four Key Developments in Havana and the Campaign Trail

Recent polls have shown that Sunday’s Presidential election run-off in Colombia is anybody’s game. President-canddiate Juan Manuel Santos is seeking a re-election and his challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga is supported by Santos’ predecessor, the hyper-popular and controversial former President Alvaro Uribe.

Four recent developments have significantly shifted the narratives and political environment’s surrounding the defining issue in this election (the peace talks with the FARC in Havana). Zuluaga has moderated his position on the talks, but – echoing Uribe as President – he denies the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia. On the other hand, the FARC and the government in Havana have agreed upon a preliminary set of principles on the fifth issue on the table (Victim’s and their rights), and the leader of the FARC declared a ceasefire until June 30.

 

The FARC – preparing for President Zuluaga?

 

The FARC’s leader, Timoleon Jimenez (alias ‘Timochenko’) declared a unilateral ceasefire for the second round-off Presidential elections. Elections are on June 15, and the FARC declared a break from hostilities towards the Colombian Armed Forces and infrastructure from the 9th to the 30th of June.

Interestingly, Timochenko made the announcement in a letter directed towards Zuluaga exclusively. In the letter, the rebel leader tries to argue that in a recent confrontation in Chilvi, Tumaco, during the course of which the FARC  ‘supposedly’ threw an explosive that killed 2 children, had nothing to do with them.

Timochenko makes reference to Zuluaga’s assertion that the FARC have not shown any gestures of goodwill for peace; Timochenko said that this ceasefire is an example and that it is the government – who will not declare a bilateral ceasefire- who has not shown good will.

Given Zuluaga’s victory in the first round of elections, perhaps the FARC are trying to prepare for negotiations with a President Zuluaga but for now this is only speculation.

 

Zuluaga with the Conservatives – giving Peace a Chance?

 

Former Conservative Presidential Candidate Marta Lucia Ramirez – another Uribe supporter – endorsed Zuluaga for the run-off. As part of her endorsement, she reached an policy agreement with Zuluaga, moderating his position on the peace talks. Instead of now suspending the dialogues as soon as he would take office, Zuluaga says he will continue the dialogues but only according to certain conditions. If elected, Zuluaga will try and verify that within a month, the FARC are no longer recruiting minors, placing anti-personnel landmines (and letting the government know where they are), to end ‘terrorist attacks’ against the population, end war crimes, attacks against infrastructure, and for their to be a timeline on the negotiations. The agreement also calls on the FARC to honour their promises to no longer kidnap for ransom.

Uribe, Zuluaga’s mentor, has said that “Zuluaga was never against peace”, but was against impunity and a condition-less negoitation. Others have argued that this 180 degree turn-around on Zuluaga’s part is not to be trusted.   

Zuluaga’s significant change on an issue that arguably created a reaction which in turn created his party (Uribe’s ‘Democratic Centre’) can perhaps be read several ways. Zuluaga may indeed believe and respect the accord, and try to seek a negotiated settlement with the FARC in good faith. Perhaps then, the questions surrounding Uribe’s desire to stay central to Colombian political life are less about militarily defeating the FARC, and more about electing his candidate to the country’s highest office. Given how the tightness between the two candidates, that includes appealing to a broader base who may see some promise in the talks, and trying to disrupt Santos’ narrative that the President represents peace and that Zuluaga and Uribe are war-mongers.

Another potential scenario is that Zuluaga has no intention of continuing the Peace talks. His positions started from breaking the talks altogether, to suspending them, to now continuing them conditionally. According to this thesis, Zuluaga is seeking to have his cake and eat it too: He can this way be perceived as balanced, wanting a negotiated settlement over more war, but setting restrictive conditions that would amount to a de-facto suspension of the talks.

In response to whether his new position was ‘treason’ to his generally pro-military approach constituency, Zuluaga said that he is “opening space [in his campaign] for very important groups that represent millions of Colombians”.

 

There might be peace, but there is no war – Uribe’s War On Terror narratives on the campaign trail

 

The other important item coming from Zuluaga is his interview with alternative newspaper La Silla Vacia. Here, Zuluaga says that there is no “armed conflict” in Colombia, and instead that security issues are rooted in a “terrorist threat” (the guerrillas). He has repeatedly (and erroneously) called the FARC “the largest drug cartel in the world”. Zuluaga’s discourse is precisely how Uribe characterized the guerrillas during his presidency – as “narco-terrorists” who are not worthy of political status. On the other hand, in this narrative the Colombian State and its’ use of force is seen as legitimate. Uribe’s discourse clearly has spectres of the War On Terror in which the enemy is depoliticized and seen as a security threat to overcome, and not to reach a political negotiation with.

In a televised debate a few nights ago, Santos asked repeatedly whether Zuluaga considered Colombia’s situation to constitute an “armed conflict”, which Zuluaga dodged.

Finally, another term from Uribe’s language that Zuluaga has been employing is the juxtaposition between a legitimate democracy (represented, they argue, by the Colombian state) and the ‘authoritarian’ regimes in Cuba and Venezuela (referred to as ‘Castro-Chavismo’). Zuluaga contends that the FARC are a representation of ‘Castro-Chavismo’ and that the negotiations in Havana are subsequently ceding Colombia’s democracy.

This represents a key difference between Uribe and Santos – enshrined in the landmark 2011 Victim’s & Land Restitution Law- over a semantic question of immense political importance: Is there an armed conflict in Colombia? The Victim’s Law explicitly makes reference to one, which Uribe opposed when the Law was a bill under his government. This technical/abstract distinction affects the nature of the negotiations in Havana. Given the vehement rejection of most Colombians – particularly Urbanites and elites- of the FARC, Santos knows he does not have a mandate to negotiate at any cost. Nevertheless, recognizing an armed conflict between two belligerents logically precedes a need for a negotiation. The FARC, weakened but not defeated, see the process (or at least are trying to frame it as) a negotiation between equal parts. Zuluaga on the other hand, sees the FARC as terrorists who need to surrender to the legitimate institutions and justice of the Colombian state.

Some victim’s groups – who in discussions about the Law became political footballs for differences about the armed conflict definition – are therefore concerned that a Zuluaga Presidency  would roll back some of the gains made with Santos of recognizing a conflict (and therefore, that there are victims who have been abused by different perpetrators, not just the guerrillas).

 

Victim’s Tentatively Recognized by FARC and the government?

 

That was the other big news today. the FARC and the government negotiators in Havana have reached an agreement on 10 ‘principles’ surrounding the fifth item on the table – victims and their rights.

The ten points include a recognition of the conflict’s victims, and a commitment to not letting the negotiations result in “an exchange of impunities”.  The accord has commitments to responsibility, reparations, and a guarantee of protection and security. The deal also included a tentative commission to ‘clarify’ the historical truth of the conflict, a key demand of the insurgents. It will further include a gender sup-group.

Interestingly, the deal also includes something quite novel in peace processes – spaces for victims’ participation. Apparently a delegation will go to Havana soon, and several forums will be organized around the country in the coming month.

This point may be politically motivated (it cannot be a coincidence that this was announced a week before the Presidential elections). However, it also allows Santos to argue that the FARC are willing to recognize their victims, and that the State has also victimized.

Whether this will calm enough the anxiety of what exact balance between justice and peace is being struck in Havana, and be an example of supposed good faith between both parties, can’t be known until Sunday.

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Human Rights Watch alerts over humanitarian crisis in Buenaventura

Since the time of Alvaro Uribe Velez, where security was perceived to be improving, Colombia’s most important port, Buenaventura, has been plagued by violence from the army, drug trafficking groups, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries.

Buenaventura is Colombia’s economic gate to the Pacific and to Asia. It’s strategically vital for narcotrafficking groups to move drugs, and weapons, but also for Colombian and international designs around importing foreign goods and exporting Colombian resources to the world.

Buenaventura’s poverty, its invisibility and marginality are not only part of the institutionalized racism and classism of Colombian society or the armed conflict, but also an acute example of how the promise of “trade” and globalization has been empty for the people there. More needs to be explored on the confluence of drug trafficking, international trade, and structural and imposed poverty and violence in Buenaventura.

Nevertheless, bonaverenses are by no means helpless. As told by VerdadAbierta.com, over 30,000 people marched last month against violence in the city.

Only then did the President pay attention to the situation by visiting a few weeks ago.

Check out HRW’s press release and the video below which includes testimonies from local organizers resisting the violence.

This was originally published on HRW’s website on March 20, 2014.

“(Bogotá) – Paramilitary successor groups have abducted and disappeared scores, and possibly hundreds, of residents of the largely Afro-Colombian port of Buenaventura, Human Rights Watch said in a report and video released today. Thousands of residents have been fleeing their homes in the city each year, making Buenaventura the municipality with the highest level of ongoing forced displacement in Colombia today.

The 30-page report, “The Crisis in Buenaventura: Disappearances, Dismemberment, and Displacement in Colombia’s Main Pacific Port,” documents how many of the city’s neighborhoods are dominated by powerful criminal groups that commit widespread abuses, including abducting and dismembering people, sometimes while still alive, then dumping them in the sea. The groups maintain “chop-up houses” (casas de pique) where they slaughter victims, according to witnesses, residents, the local Catholic church, and some officials.

“The situation in Buenaventura is among the very worst we’ve seen in many years of working in Colombia and the region,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Simply walking on the wrong street can get you abducted and dismembered, so it’s no surprise the residents are fleeing by the thousands.”

Paramilitary successor groups emerged in Buenaventura after the deeply flawed official demobilization of right-wing paramilitary organizations a decade ago. Currently, the Urabeños and the Empresa are the main successor groups operating in the port city. The groups restrict residents’ movement – attacking people if they cross invisible borders between areas controlled by rival factions – recruit children, extort businesses, and routinely engage in horrific acts of violence against anyone who defies their will.


More than 150 people who were reported to have gone missing in Buenaventura between January 2010 and December 2013 are presumed by officials to have been abducted and “disappeared,” twice as many as in any other municipality in Colombia. Interviews with authorities and residents, as well as official reports, strongly suggest that the actual number of people who have been abducted and killed by paramilitary successor groups in the city is significantly higher. One major cause of underreporting is the widespread fear of reprisals.

Buenaventura residents told Human Rights Watch that they had heard people scream and plead for mercy as they were being dismembered in “chop-up houses.” In March 2014, after criminal investigators found bloodstains in two suspected “chop-up houses,” the police announced the discovery of several locations in Buenaventura where victims had been dismembered alive.

“In Buenaventura, there are chop-up houses,” said Monsignor Héctor Epalza Quintero, the Catholic bishop of Buenaventura. “People say that in the middle of the night you can hear the screams of people saying ‘Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me! Don’t be evil!’ These people are basically being chopped up alive.”

In 2013, violence drove more than 19,000 people from their homes in Buenaventura, more than in any other municipality in the country, according to official numbers. Decades of violence and armed conflict have forced more than 5 million Colombians to flee their homes, giving the country the second largest population of internally displaced people in the world. Buenaventura also led all Colombian municipalities in the numbers of newly displaced people in 2011 and 2012. Displacement caused by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas has also been a serious problem in Buenaventura’s less-populated rural areas, according to official numbers.

People living in parts of the city where the paramilitary successor groups have a strong grip reported that the police presence in their neighborhoods was scarce. Several residents reported witnessing members of the police meet with the successor group in their neighborhoods.

Prosecutors have opened more than 2,000 investigations into cases of “disappearances” and forced displacement in Buenaventura committed by a range of groups or individuals over the past two decades, but none has led to a conviction. No one had even been charged in 509 of the 512 investigations for which prosecutors provided Human Rights Watch information about the status of the investigation.

 

“There is a pervasive sense of defenselessness among Buenaventura residents, who have seen how the authorities continually fail to protect them from atrocities or bring to justice those responsible,” Vivanco said.

On March 6, after a regional police commander announced the discovery of several “chop-up sites” in Buenaventura, President Juan Manuel Santos said the government would intervene to address the city’s security problems. Along with increasing the presence of the security forces, President Santos promised to take measures to improve socio-economic conditions in the city.

Human Rights Watch outlined several steps the government should take to ensure the effectiveness of any intervention in Buenaventura. These include:

  • Maintain an uninterrupted police presence in neighborhoods were paramilitary successor groups are most active;
  • Establish an independent commission to evaluate the problem of “disappearances” in Buenaventura and develop a plan to curb the abuses and punish those responsible;
  • Create a special team of prosecutors exclusively tasked with investigating “disappearances” in Buenaventura; and
  • Vigorously investigate officials credibly alleged to have tolerated or colluded with paramilitary successor groups there.

“President Santos made an important commitment to address the human rights disaster in Buenaventura,” Vivanco said. “To be successful, the government needs to ensure accountability for abuses in Buenaventura, and dismantle the brutal paramilitary successor groups terrorizing the city.””

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Filed under Colombia, English, Land/Tierra, Paramilitarismo, Uncategorized

Who is and is not a ‘paramilitary’? Erasing the changing nature of Colombia’s conflicts over land

A few weeks ago, Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program recently ran an interesting 20-minute investigative piece on the struggles of community leaders with respect to the Land Restitution process, which raises some questions about whether or not paramilitarism continues, or has changed in Colombia.

colombia-ley-de-tierras “Land & Life”, photo credit: InfoLatAm

Some context The Paramilitary Demobilization & Contested Narratives.

Since the 1920s (and arguably, since the 16th century), disputes over who owns land, whether land can be ‘owned’, who gets to benefit off of the land, have been deeply influencing Colombia’s armed and social conflict.

Although the FARC, the ELN, drug cartels, and the army/all armed actors in Colombia have displaced people off of their land and terrorized communities in order to exert social and territorial control over them, right-wing paramilitary groups working often on behalf of narcotraffickers and large land owners have been particularly tied to the question of displacement. Colombia is said to have the highest number of internally displaced people in the world (the Norwegian Refugee Council puts it at 5.5 million, and this documentary puts it at around 6 million). This is not  even counting those who were displaced outside of Colombia. Many in Colombia say that throughout the war, as much as 10 million hectares have changed hands.

What’s interesting here is that many analyses concerning Colombia’s Land Restitution Law follow a common, and relatively accurate, narrative – Colombia’s land restitution process is at serious threat because of the continued threats by armed groups to community organizers leading land claims. However, the Al-Jazeera documentary probes deeper into the ideological and semantic questions of these threats, which arguably, are of tremendous significance to the political moment in which the land restitution process occurs.

Firstly, the confederation of right-wing paramilitary groups known as las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, or the United Self-Defense forces of Colombia) demobilized in 2003-6 in a highly-criticized process which some victim’s groups saw as a granting of impunity    Many of the middle-rung paramilitary leaders who demobilized under the law (and were not extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges) will start to be released this year.

Thousands of the former paramilitaries granted legal benefits under the demobilization process with the previous government of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), re-armed into groups that have been characterized by the government and some analysts as “criminal bands” or BACRIM, or armed groups that are primarily focused on narcotrafficking, and not actors in the armed conflict.

In the documentary, a functionary of the national government says that the BACRIM are not paramilitaries, for example, because they do not engage in combat with the FARC or the ELN.

Others, such as opposition Congressman Ivan Cepeda have argued that the BACRIM are neo-paramilitaries, or a continuation of powerful interests defending themselves with private armies. What is undoubted is that the human costs of paramilitarism, and the tactics of repression, threats, and cruelty imposed by these groups on the civilian population are very similar to the ‘old’ paramilitaries and are devastating. It is important to note however that the ‘old’ paramilitaries in the 1990s committed many large, atrocious massacres, and these are much less common now, although the selective murders of activists continue at an alarming rate in Colombia. It’s also worth nothing that violence perpetrated by the neoparas/BACRIM accounts for the majority of forced displacement currently.

At the heart of the question is what is the ideological motivation (if any) behind these paramilitary successor groups – if they have, like the Castaños – a clear anti-subversive, right-wing and seemingly fascist ideological motivation, or if they are “merely” criminal groups or drug traffickers and pistols-for-hire for powerful landed interests. This raises some questions about history – one of Uribe’s main challenges in beginning negotiations with the AUC in the early 2000s was that to do so they needed to have legally recognized political status (which they did not). Moreover, some have argued that even the AUC did not necessarily have a coherent guiding ideology as many groups were the private armies of (seemingly apolitical) narcotraffickers. However, in relation to land, it is clear that the AUC did have a clear pro-business, pro-land owner and anti-dissident agenda.

“Neoparamilitarism” in the Current Political Moment – Moving toward “peace”?

SantosRestitucion President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon giving land titles in Mampujan, Cesar at a land restitution ceremony. Photo credit: Caracol.com.co

The important point here is the political interests behind this seemingly abstract distinction – if the they do have an ideological motivation, then perhaps the “neoparas” are a continuation of paramilitarism in Colombia, but if they are not, this validates the official discourse that paramilitarism in Colombia ended in 2006 with the demoblization of the AUC. Under this logic, which is the government narrative and is often reproduced in Colombian media, the only groups left to negotiate with for “peace” in Colombia are the guerrillas.

Within this narrative is the conjecture of the “historic” 2011 Victim’s and Land Restitution’s Law and the current peace talks with the FARC guerrillas in Havana. Both initiatives by the Santos government are aimed at ending Colombia’s conflict (although, a conflict defined in certain ways) and providing ‘reparations’ for “moving forward” or establishing a so-called “peace”.

Although the Victim’s Law is a useful tool and has some interesting mechanisms for Victim’s (such as a reverse-onus for land-owners accused of having ‘dirty’ land to prove that they obtained it legally), the law, as explained by the Al-Jazeera documentary, is actually quite tepid in how much land can be redistributed, and in how much time (the law stops after a decade, and the backlog on land claims is enormous). Furthermore, according to one interviewee, the law won’t touch the land of large companies or land-owners who have their paper work in order. In other words, the Victim’s Law is not an agrarian reform to respond to not only the violent, largely paramilitary and narco-trafficker-driven, counter-agrarian reform/displacement crisis of the last 30 years, but it also leaves out the historic question of land inequality in Colombia (rooted in colonialism). Finally, there are questions about whether those displaced by the BACRIM/neo-paras (as these aren’t deemed as political actors in the armed conflict) will be eligible for restitution.

Therefore, the political categorization of Colombia’s armed groups in institutional and political terms shapes conceptualizations of the conflict, and subsequently, divergences between how the state wants to frame the war (or ignore it) and how people experience it in human and material terms (killings of leaders continue, land isn’t given back).

Ideologically, the Colombian state, the international community, and particularly academia, seems to prioritize political violence (as this threatens the state, and is more “sexy”/associated with mass and sensationalized violence). Prioritizing this violence also prioritizes its victims. However, that begs the question – what is an armed conflict, what is political violence, and what does it matter? Arguably, Mexico is currently experiencing a brutal civil war.  Politics also currently colours the mass wave of violence in Venezuela, which in recent years has had some of the highest murder rates in the world.

It makes little senses to create a hierarchy of violences, and of  its’ victims, according to rigid and problematic intellectual definitions of an ‘armed conflict’ needing to have a certain relationship to discourses (groups needing explicit political goals) and to the state (protecting or challenging its monopoly on violence).

Kyle Johnson in a guest piece over at Colombia Reports on the “neo-paras” offers a much more useful conceptualization:

The political at its root is the capacity to make and implement decisions that define, normally limiting, the rules of the game in society by imposing restrictions and permissions on certain actions; it is looking to establish a social hierarchy and decide who resides where in that hierarchy; usually the rules and hierarchy are reinforced through coercion and selected benefits for certain sectors of the population. This definition is far from most arguments about what constitutes political positions, political interests, etc. It is derived from classical political theory and some sociological concepts on political power, and it should be noted that one does not need a clear, well-developed ideological project to have a political side.

…..

Given the incredible historical importance that land has played in establishing the position of people in the regional social hierarchy, and thus the economic, social and political power large landowners have, the threats and violence against those who are reclaiming their stolen land back are effectively defining the place of certain actors in that hierarchy. …

Additionally, these coercive actions indicate that looking to gain stolen land back is not permitted in the areas under Urabeños’ control.

So in the Colombian context (and many others) the contention that is politics is largely rooted in land, and therefore the BACRIM/neoparamilitaries are definitely political actors as they are trying to close political space for actors wanting to claim it, using a language of ‘cleansing’ that harks back to the days of the AUC.   They also  seem to be in favour of business interests and against activists/community leaders and progressive sectors.

By re-defining the nature of politics to be something broader than explicit ideology or threats to the state, and armed political conflict, or by not creating a hierarchy of victims, hopefully this would open more institutional spaces for victim’s to have access to memory, reparations, justice, and restitution on their terms. However, as things currently stand, questions of whether paramilitarism continues in Colombia are seemingly being ignored by the state and some sectors of the media in their language and characterization of paramilitary successor groups as ‘criminal bands’ disconnected from the past paramilitaries. What the thesis of ‘neoparamilitarism’ does is throw a wrench in the the assumptions behind the Land Restitution process, the peace process, and notions of transitional justice in Colombia : the Justice & Peace Law was not just an abject failure in providing justice, but it also provided no peace and no transition. At a local level, conflicts over land continue in the same nature as during the height of the war and paramilitarism/paramilitarism was not stopped by the demobilization.

Validating the official discourse – that paramilitaries are over, land is being given back, and soon, the guerrillas and the war in general will be history, erases not only the current lived experiences of people in regions like Jiguamiando and Curvarado and the Urabá region, but also more structural, historical, and political underpinnings of Colombia’s conflict (land inequality and the brutal repression of peaceful dissidence). It also erases how Colombian democracy was shockingly co-opted by paramilitary groups, and that the alliances between certain businesspeople, politicians, and armed groups who displace and threaten peasants, Afro-Colombians, popular sectors, and indigenous people are something that has been overcome.

In other words, at this course, violence against Colombia’s peasantry will long continue after the FARC give up their arms, but the victim’s of Colombia’s war will be even more invisible; the war will be further denied.
PS – The International Criminal Court is looking at one paramilitary group, the ‘Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia’, popularly referred to as “Los Urabeños“.

Further reading: York University Professor Jasmin Hristov’s “Legalizing the Illegal: Paramilitarism in Colombia’s ‘Post-Paramilitary’ Era” is strongly recommended.

For another perspective, InsightAnalysis has a wealth of information on Colombia’s BACRIM.

At a local level, according to Ariel Avila,  it also seems that ‘parapolitics’, or alliances between neoparas/BACRIM are still occurring, reminiscent of the ‘parapolitica’ scandal that touched over a third of Congress, intelligence agencies, the military, and civil cervants.

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International Union of Food workers (IUF): Labour union murders continue in Colombia

Originally posted on January 14, 2014 by the IUF

The violent suppression of organized labour continues in Colombia. If your country has strong trade relations with Colombia, or a Free Trade Agreement (as does Canada and the United States), please consider writing to your elected officials….

Ever Luis Marín Rolong, a regional leader of the SINALTRACEBA brewery workers union was murdered on January 4 by unknown gunmen who fired six times at him, as he was waiting for a bus in the town of Soledad. The next day the President of SINALTRACEBA, Gamboa Rafael Maldonado, received death threats from paramilitaries while the union was holding its General Assembly. The person on the phone, stated to the union President that they had already taken the life of Ever Luis and he would be next.

CLICK HEREto send a message to the government of Colombia.

Ever Luis Marín Rolong had worked at the Aguila brewery as an electrician for 26 years and recently had participated in the union activities to sign a collective bargaining agreement.

The IUF sends its deepest condolences to Ever Luis’s family, the union, his friends and co-workers and joins with the national center CUT and unions around the world in condemning this assassination of yet another Colombian trade unionist and calls on the authorities to take the necessary actions to find those responsible for the murder and bring them to justice.

and this was also posted at “Justice for Colombia” on January 8 2014

Trade Unionist Killed in Barranquilla

News from Colombia | on: Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Ever Luis Marin. Killed January 4, 2014

Ever Luis Marin. Killed January 4, 2014

On 4th January Ever Luis Marin Rolong, a 46 year-old electrician at the Aguila beer brewery, was waiting for the bus that took him to work. He was due to begin his shift at 4pm. He never made it. Moments later someone fired six shots into him at point blank range, leaving him mortally injured. Mr Marin died in a police clinic shortly afterwards.

Mr Marin was a member of the SINALTRACEBA trade union, and a man with 26 years of experience in the brewery.

The following evening the president of SINALTRACEBA, Rafael Maldonado Gamboa, received a death threat over the phone from a man who identified himself as ‘Joaquin’. The caller said ‘we’ve killed the first of you, you’re the second.’

The union had just renegotiated terms of employment with the company.

The CUT has demanded that the government investigate the two incidents, and has called on international solidarity to protect the lives and activity of Colombian trade unionists.”

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Drummond, un desastre ambiental, económico y social

Originalmente publicado el lunes 18 de febrero, 2013 en Razon Publica. Por Rafael Pardo de Colombia Medio Punto.

Alvaro Pardo desastre Drummond Razon Publica
Alvaro-Pardo
Un análisis revelador y detallado del contrato leonino y de la larga cadena de abusos  y de excesos de esta compañía carbonera durante 25 años.

Álvaro Pardo*

​Se nos creció el gringo

Gary Drummond, un mediano productor de carbón en Alabama, Estados Unidos, suscribió en 1988 con Carbocol el contrato de Aporte Minero 078 para operar La Loma, cuyos términos y condiciones le permiten actuar en los departamentos de Cesar y Magdalena como una república independiente, sin más leyes y normas que las que la compañía misma establece y que el Estado debe respetar.

Con diez años de anticipación, la compañía Drummond solicitó a la autoridad minera renovar el oneroso contrato de Aporte Minero de La Loma, que vence en el 2019, y que arrastra un enorme historial de irregularidades e infracciones a las normas ambientales, y un ostensible desprecio por el entorno social, los derechos humanos y la legislación laboral.

Con una producción superior a los 23 millones de toneladas en el 2011,  esta compañía se ha convertido en la segunda carbonera más importante del país — después de Cerrejón — a costa de transformar, en complicidad con el Estado, un rico departamento agropecuario en un desierto en construcción.

Alvaro Pardo desastre Drummond Gary​Gary Drummond, un mediano productor de
carbón en Alabama, Estados Unidos, con
alto vuelo en Colombia.
Foto: Justice For Colombia.

Contrato leonino

Quienes pensaban que Cerro Matoso era un modelo de lo que el país no debía hacer en materia de contratación minera, están equivocados. Veamos algunas joyas del contrato original y de los otrosíes que conforman el contrato 078 de 1988.

A diferencia de todos los demás contratos mineros del país — que pagan regalías por la producción en boca de mina — Drummond logró pactar que las regalías se paguen por los volúmenes que embarcan. De manera que todo el carbón que se pierda en el proceso técnico, de transporte y de embarque corre por cuenta del Estado. Por ejemplo, el carbón que fue arrojado al mar el pasado 13 de enero es una pérdida para el Estado.
Todas las cifras del contrato son presuntivas. Inversión presuntiva, ganancias presuntivas, costos presuntivos y fletes presuntivos. Sobre estas cifras presuntivas, se calcularon las regalías y se pagaron los impuestos; se permitió el uso de estos estimativos, porque “la empresa requiere tener suficiente flexibilidad técnica para su adecuado desarrollo”.
Las regalías son del 15 por ciento sobre el precio FOB presuntivo. Además de ser presuntivas, las regalías no se pagan como en los demás contratos mineros —  sino el primer 5 por ciento a los 30 días del embarque y el 10 por ciento restantes otros 30 días después. Una forma elegante de financiarse con recursos del Estado.
Uno de los logros económicos más importantes para el país fue haber pactado una ganancia presuntiva equivalente a las ventas brutas de carbón menos los costos presuntivos y la renta de los activos. Como los costos presuntivos los estima Drummond, el Estado no ha recibido jamás un solo peso por este concepto.
El precio FOB del carbón de Drummond se fijó inicialmente en relación directa con el precio FOB del carbón del Cerrejón. Sin embargo, desde cuando se enajenaron los intereses de la Nación en Cerrejón, el precio fue fijado durante varios años por la misma compañía. La autoridad minera ni se inmutó por el riesgo moral de la información, pese a que es una variable fundamental para calcular las regalías y pagar impuestos.

Actualmente, las regalías se liquidan mediante una fórmula compleja, cuyas variables surgen sin que la autoridad minera las pueda fiscalizar. Las restricciones al acceso a la información son tan grandes, que la realidad contable de la operación está cubierto con un manto de confidencialidad.

Las regalías se liquidan mediante una fórmula compleja, cuyas variables surgen sin que la autoridad minera las pueda fiscalizar.

El contrato de La Loma se extiende hasta el 23 de febrero del 2019, y el mismo contrato establece la forma como se llevará a cabo la reversión gratuita de los bienes al Estado. Sin embargo, y pese a que no hay posibilidad de renovación, desde 2009 la compañía inició gestiones orientadas a lograr una nueva prórroga de 30 años, con la misma estrategia litigiosa, irregular y mañosa de Cerro Matoso.

Entre los costos deducibles para obtener el precio FOB Boca de Mina se incluyen los costos operativos, hecho que es razonable y que se aplica a los demás contratos mineros. Pero Drummond logró también que se permitiera la deducción de costos no operativos, como amortizaciones y rendimientos sobre la inversión.
En ocasiones, los costos operativos y no operativos fueron tan altos que superaron los precios de venta del carbón y el precio FOB Boca de Mina fue negativo. La autoridad minera no tiene forma de verificar esta información.

Cuando Carbocol necesite revisar una información, designará una firma independiente, aceptable para Drummond, para verificar los pagos de las regalías, y podrá revisar todo, excepto la información de las actividades realizadas entre Drummond y las demás empresas de su grupo. Esa es la forma clásica de reducir los impuestos y regalías que pagan las multinacionales a los países pobres con recursos naturales no renovables.

La información sobre embarques es provista por un certificador independiente, nombrado y pagado por Drummond. Toda la información relevante depende de la compañía y todo el contrato está diseñado para defender sus intereses económicos.

Compras de carbón a terceros, mezclas de carbón en puertos, depreciación de bienes ya depreciados, venta de un porcentaje de  los RNNR del Estado a la japonesa Itachu y tarifas férreas son temas también grises y confusos en este contrato. En tres auditorias, la Contraloría General de la República se llamó la atención sobre estos temas, pero ni empresa, ni autoridad minera, se dieron por enterados.

En un ejercicio preliminar, la Contraloría General encontró que los costos de transporte por tonelada en tren eran inexplicablemente superiores al transporte terrestre. Por ese concepto, integrado a los costos operativos, el país habría dejado de recibir unos 60.000 millones de pesos en 2005.

Por ejemplo, el carbón que fue arrojado al mar el pasado 13 de enero es una pérdida para el Estado.

En fin, el análisis del contrato revela la gran debilidad negociadora del Estado; su desmedido afán de atraer a cualquier costo a inversionistas extranjeros para que, mediante la explotación acelerada de los recursos naturales no renovables, se cree un flujo de caja representado por impuestos y regalías; el poder de las multinacionales para imponer sus propias condiciones, desde luego muy provechosas para los privados, y el profundo desprecio por todos los demás aspectos del entorno minero: el medio ambiente, la comunidad, los trabajadores, los derechos humanos y los poblados confinados.

En los Contratos de Aporte firmados con Drummond, Cerro Matoso, Prodeco y Cerrejón, los mayores productores de carbón y níquel, se manifiestan tanto el poder de las multinacionales para diseñar un esquema contractual que les permite maximizar sus ganancias como la ausencia de un Estado y una política minera que defienda los intereses de los colombianos.

Un estorbo para la gran minería

Decenas de estudios académicos, independientes y de los organismos de control coinciden en el inmenso daño ambiental de las diversas operaciones de gran minería a cielo abierto que se adelantan sin mayor control oficial en la zona central del departamento de Cesar.

Al proceso de desertización lo acompañan las corridas del río Calenturitas, la desaparición de arroyos y de grandes superficies de vocación agrícola y pecuaria, y las oleadas de polvillo de carbón que azotan la salud de niños y ancianos,

A esto se agrega la negativa de la compañía para tomar medidas que reduzcan la emisión de polvillo del carbón durante la explotación y el transporte, así como la burla a las normas que lo obligan al cargue directo del mineral en el puerto en Santa Marta. El plazo para iniciar el cargue directo ha sido, inexplicablemente, ampliado por el gobierno de 2010 [1] a 2014. Muchos apuestan a que la compañía logrará una nueva extensión de este plazo.

El reciente vertimiento de carbón al mar en inmediaciones de Ciénaga, cerca a Santa Marta (un hecho que Sandra P. Vilardy  analiza en esta misma entrega de Razón Pública)  es una muestra más de su ineficiente sistema de carga, de la desidia frente al ecosistema natural, del desconocimiento deliberado del procedimiento de manejo de contingencias y de la falta de transparencia y ética empresarial.

No obstante, el expresidente de Drummond, Augusto Jiménez, repite con frecuencia que la minería en Colombia se está marchitando debido a las trabas de la Agencia Nacional de Licencias Ambientales (ANLA) a la ineficiencia de las Corporaciones Autónomas Regionales (CAR), a los indígenas que no dejan trabajar y a las ONGs ambientalistas que le generan un mal ambiente al sector.

 Sin sonrojarse siquiera, repitió esta diatriba durante una cumbre de la gran minería con presencia del presidente Santos el pasado 29 de enero, dos semanas después del ecocidio frente a las playas de Santa Marta.

La Drummond ha recibido varias multas por infracciones a las normas ambientales:

  • el 17 de julio del 2007, mediante resolución 1286 de 2007, el ministerio de Ambiente, Vivienda y Desarrollo Territorial impuso una multa por 140 millones de pesos,  por contaminar el mar y por no haber tomado los correctivos correspondientes para el transporte adecuado del mineral.
  • También en 2007, el mismo ministerio multó con 130 millones de pesos a American Port Company Inc. por exportar más carbón del autorizado;
  • En 2008, la compañía debió pagar otra multa de 1.700 millones de pesos, por la construcción de corredores y vías sin licencia ambiental.
Alvaro Pardo desastre Drummond ambiental
El oneroso contrato de Aporte Minero de
La Loma, que vence en el 2019, arrastra
un enorme historial de irregularidades e
​infracciones a las normas ambientales.
Foto: sintramienergeticanacional.blogspot.com

Con cara gana Drummond, con sello pierde el país

El contrato original establece que cuando Drummond incumpla el contrato, si paga la multa en los siguientes primeros diez días, el hecho no se considerará un incumplimiento y no quedará registrado en el expediente.

Sin embargo, cuando el incumplimiento es imputable al Estado, como fue el caso de Ferrovías, Drummond no dudó en demandar ante la Cámara de Comercio Internacional de París, pleito que ganó y que significó un costo de unos 60.000 millones de pesos para la Nación. De acuerdo con los documentos disponibles sobre la materia y al informe de Noticias Uno el pasado 9 de febrero, el gobierno pagó la multa a Drummond el 28 de diciembre de 2012.

Otro tema que llama la atención: Peter Burrowes, presidente de FENOCO entre junio de 2008 y agosto de 2012 — empresa que heredó la demanda de Drummond contra Ferrovías y quien en ese periodo ha debido defender los intereses del Estado –, fue nombrado en noviembre de ese mismo año Vicepresidente Ejecutivo de Drummond Internacional. Aunque se alega que la puerta giratoria no tiene nada de ilegal, por lo menos sí se nota un cierto grado de indelicadeza que deja mucho que pensar.

“Estamos muy orgullosos de nuestro historial en Colombia”, dijo Drummond en un comunicado recientemente expedido, en el que además se declaran víctimas del asalto intelectual de sus críticos. Este es el cinismo con que actúan en Colombia estas compañías, especialmente las que conforman el gremio de la Minería a Gran Escala.

Proven Excellence in Colombia

Pobladores de El Hatillo, Plan Bonito y Boquerón esperan desde 2010 que Drummond, entre otras, comiencen la ejecución del plan de reubicación para escapar de la grave polución causada por la explotación de carbón a cielo abierto.

Confinados en sus casas, presionados por montañas de material estéril, con problemas de salud y sin alternativas de vida, los habitantes de las áreas de influencia esperan que gobierno y compañías mineras se pongan de acuerdo para solucionar este grave problema de confinamiento, una de las formas más atroces de atropello a la comunidad.

Recientemente, un juez penal condenó a 37 años de cárcel a un contratista de Drummond por el asesinato de dos sindicalistas de la empresa en 2001. El condenado, Jaime Blanco Maya, insiste en que la orden del asesinato provino de la cúpula de Drummond. Según el artículo de El Nuevo Herald del 10 de febrero de 2013, el juez ordenó a la Fiscalía investigar a Gary Drummond y a Augusto Jiménez.

Más de 400 trabajadores y extrabajadores con incapacidad por enfermedades profesionales y asma ocupacional (sílice + carbonilla en los pulmones), hablan mal del programa de salud ocupacional. Aquí el Ministerio de Salud ha sido el gran ausente de esta problemática.

Más allá de lo que pagan por regalías e impuestos, esta compañía — cuyo lema es Proven Excellence in Colombia — ha resultado un auténtico desastre para los colombianos. Ojalá la autoridad minera tuviera el valor civil de NO renovar el contrato minero.

*  Director de Colombia Punto Medio

** Los documentos utilizados en este artículo en
www.colombiapuntomedio.com

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Hey, It’s Just Business: Canucks kiss up to Colombia’s paralilitaries

By Enzo Di Matteo, originally published in print NOW Toronto | May 3-10, 2001 | VOL 20 NO 3. Found here on web.

“[L]eaders at the [Q]uebec summit of the Americas talked often and loud last week about environmental and social protections being written into any future hemispheric free trade pact. But whatever safeguards politicos are imagining, anti-globalization activists and human rights groups maintain that such measures would do nothing meaningful to improve the lot of people in developing countries.

The track record of transnationals doing business in places like Colombia, where leftist rebels have been fighting a 40-year insurgency against the government, has been particularly brutal.

There, Canadian oil companies, responsible for their share of toxic spills, mass deforestation and the displacement of peasant farmers, are raking in record profits with passing regard for eco standards or human rights.

Take Calgary-based oil and gas giant Enbridge.

The company’s OCENSA pipeline runs for 675 kilometres, from the Cusiana and Cupiagua oil fields in the Andes to the port of Coveñas on the Caribbean coast. It’s the largest in Colombia, transporting some 500,000 barrels of crude a day. Enbridge, whose earnings from the pipeline topped $30 million last year, recently bought up TransCanada Pipelines’ share in OCENSA.

The company’s record profits were front and centre when investors gathered for Enbridge’s annual shareholders meeting in Calgary on Wednesday (May 2).

In 1997, however, the company was linked by Amnesty International to a Colombian military unit being investigated “for complicity in the massacre of 15 unarmed civilians… and with paramilitary organizations responsible for widespread human rights violations.”

OCENSA’s security head had arranged for the company to buy attack helicopters, anti-guerrilla weaponry and ammunition for the military unit, which was hired privately to protect its pipeline in the north.

A director of British Petroleum (BP), part of the OCENSA consortium told a committee of British MPs probing the incident that avoiding contact with the Colombian army is not an option when doing business in Colombia.

He testified that the only military equipment purchased by the company for the Colombian 14th brigade was night-vision goggles.

The OCENSA story, though, goes deeper. The British security firm in the company’s employ until 97 was covertly gathering intelligence on the activities of locals opposed to the pipeline. More alarming for Amnesty is the fact that the company turned this intelligence over to the Colombian military, “who, together with their paramilitary allies, have frequently targeted those considered subversives for extrajudicial execution and disappearance.”

Jim Rennie, Enbridge’s manager of public affairs, offers via e-mail in response to questions from NOW that OCENSA terminated its contract with the employee behind the scheme to sell arms to the Colombian military as soon as it found out about it. (According to testimony before British MPs, the individual in question was transferred to another operation in Venezuela.)

Rennie goes on to say that Enbridge’s relations with communities along the pipeline “have always been positive,” and that “OCENSA is confident in the professionalism of those soldiers assigned to the lawful protection of the pipeline.”

“We disagree with those who argue that non-involvement in countries with problems somehow helps resolve those problems. We believe,” Rennie says, “that safely operated, efficient and environmentally responsible pipeline operations benefit everyone, and that is something Enbridge brings to OCENSA.”

Others would take exception to Rennie’s characterization of OCENSA as “environmentally responsible.”

A joint report penned by, among others, U.S. Environmental Defense, has called OCENSA “an environmental and social disaster,” a project that demonstrates how “the lack of attention to social and environmental concerns results in severe political and economic risk.”

Indeed, it didn’t take long for tensions to blow up, literally, at OCENSA in May 1998. Back then, oil workers went on strike to protest the murders of 11 people by paramilitaries. The strike was soon followed by a leftist guerrilla attack on the pipeline that also wiped out a nearby hamlet, killing 56 people and injuring 100 more.

Since the OCENSA controversy, both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have called on oil companies operating in Colombia to adopt policies requiring military units defending their interests to abide by international human rights laws. Human Rights Watch estimates that half of Colombia’s estimated 120,000 troops are engaged full-time in protecting oil and mining installations.

Says Pablo Leal, a spokesperson for the Canadian Colombian Association, “If you geographically locate where conflicts are taking place on a map, you’ll see an enormous correlation, particularly with oil and mining activity and the movement of paramilitary groups.”

According to Amnesty’s, Keith Rimstead, “We’re not opposed to companies doing business in Colombia, but they have a responsibility to abide by principles set out in international human rights laws. If a company protecting its property hires people who then commit human rights violations, there’s a certain level of responsibility they should accept for that.”

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (composed of the world’s most industrialized countries) has drafted its own corporate code of conduct for companies operating abroad. Ditto for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International trade. But they’re only voluntary. In Ottawa, department spokesperson François Lasalle doesn’t foresee that they’ll become mandatory any time soon.

“There is a debate about balancing the moral aspects of trade with the rights of companies to handle business the way they see fit,” says Lasalle. But “this is still an open society where we’re supposed to be able to do the right thing without being forced to by government. It’s a difficult call to make.”

Colombia-watchers, meanwhile, fear that increasing North American reliance on Colombian crude, particularly in the U.S., will continue to h[e]ighten the conflict.

As well, some analysts see the $1.3-billion Plan Colombia military aid package, ostensibly aimed at stopping narco-trafficking, as part of the political calculus to protect American oil interests in Colombia.

Says Asad Ismi, author of Profiting From Repression: Canadian Investment And Trade With Colombia, “What we have to ask is, “Who’s making the money?’ These policies are being pushed by industrialized countries of the North and their extreme greed for resources. They’re literally sucking the life out of these countries.”

enzom@nowtoronto.com

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Colombian Activist Who Opposed Gold Mining Project Shot Dead

This is a story originally published by NTN24 on Nov 5 2013

cesar_garcia_pic_el_salmon_urbano_art

“Environmental activist Cesar Garcia was shot dead on his farm in Tolima Department on Saturday. Photo: El Salmon Urbano

BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA – A Colombian environmental activist who led the opposition against a proposed gold mine in Tolima Department was assassinated over the weekend, local media reported.

Cesar Garcia, who was a leading voice against the ‘La Colosa’ gold mine project, was found shot in the head on his farm in the municipality of Cajamarca, Tolima Department on Saturday afternoon.

The South African multinational mining firm Anglogold Ashanti wants to create a so-called ‘mega-mine’ in the La Colosa municipality of Tolima.

The gold mine, still in the feasibility study phase, would be one of the largest open pit mines in Latin America, according to reports.

The Colombian government granted Anglogold Ashanti permission to begin the feasibility study despite widespread local opposition to the proposed mining project, according to reports.

A group called the Environmental Committee of Cajamarca has denounced the murder, and has requested that the Ministry of the Interior do more to protect people who speak out in the area.

The group also demanded the Prosecutor’s Office begin an investigation into Garcia’s murder and bring to justice those responsible.

Anglogold Ashanti has been slammed by human rights groups for its conduct in Latin America and Africa.

In May of this year, a court in the African country of Ghana served the firm with a writ for alleged health issues caused by chemicals the firm uses in the extraction of gold from a mine there, according to Ghana media reports.

The area in Tolima where the company wants to create a large-scale gold mine is a rice producing region, and inhabitants there worry the chemicals used in such a mine will pollute their ground water and other resources, reports said.”

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Colombia: The Only Risk Is Having To Stay – Canadian Mining in the South of Bolívar and the Release of Jernoc Wobert

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.

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