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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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The historic march for Peace – its political motivations, the price of peace, and who was excluded

Foto: EFE

NB: Please check the original posted on Tuesday in Spanish for links.

Until there are no longer first and second class citizens of any nation…there will be war” – Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia

On Tuesday on the streets of Bogota bodies million Colombians took to the streets, saying they do not want more threats to the integrity and security of the same bodies. These bodies, after 49 years of murders, massacres, injuries, landmines, forced disappearances, forced recruitment, forced displacement, rape, torture, kidnappings, bombings, and threats, they want to bring to reality the dream of peace in Colombia in instead of a war against the rebels.

The mass mobilization occurred on the symbolic date of April 9, the second annual National Day for Memory and Solidarity with Victims, and the anniversary of the 1948 assasination of populist Jorge Eliecer Gaitán Ayala. His murder unclenched the civil war from 1948-58 known as “La Violencia”.

Some in the media are talking that tens of thousands attended the mach just in the Bolivar Plaza (in front of Congress, Colombia’s version of Hyde Park). Others, especially on social media networks (and later reports in the media) report 900,000 to one and a quarter million marching just in the capital.

In a sense, Tuesday’s march can be considered historic in that it demonstrates a complete change in the political tone of mass mobilizations. Just 5 years ago on February 4th, there was also the “historic” march which Barranquillero Engineering studenet Oscar Morales organized through Facebook called “One Million Voices Against the FARC”, which mobilized for the first time in years, millions of Colombians against this armed group. Nevertheless, this march was strongly criticized for its partiality (forgetting the crimes of the paramilitaries and the Armed Froces) and for validating the anti-guerrillero and war-mongering discourse of the political establishment and its counterinsurgency. It’s worth mentioning that former President Alvaro Uribe supported officially endorsed the march.

Now what we see is a peaceful march against war and for peace, organized by some entities which are by no means non-controversial (ex Senator Cordoba and the Marcha Patriótica have been accused by the Defence Minister, Juan Carlos Pinzón of having ties to the marxist insurgency).  Nevertheless, the nation in this occasion seemed to have been unified by a diverse march, without taking much notice of the social and political differences of the participants. This contrasts the march 5 years ago against the FARC-EP which was heavily supported by the middle and upper classes, and was explicitly linked to certain political interests.

Even though the march was organized by people who still have an ambiguous and controversial position in the public imaginary, the march and its gesture for peace wre well received by many sectors of mainstream opinion – the President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos himself invited Colombians to march. The U Party was also in favour of the march (breaking away from Uribe’s opposition to it), and the Mayor of Bogotá and former M-19 guerrilla, Gustavo Petro also had passionately called on Colombians to unite in this gesture of solidarity towards the ‘victims’.

Basically, the marchers of the MP, who came from all parts of the country, many from rural areas/the Other Colombia, invited the urban and middle/upper class Colombia to temporarily forget their differences and march for a common peace. And the invitation, surprisingly, was accepted by the urbanity which only a few years ago was marching in pro of the counterinsurgency.

I think that the reflections of the editor of the popular Semana weekly (one of the most read publications in Colombia) best describes the political moment that occurred on Tuesday:

In this sense, perhaps the main lesson of April 9th is not just that the government achieved an important popular support in the street for its political negotiation [with the FARC], but that Colombians from very different sides, including oppositional ones, were able to coincide on one day in complete calm around a common objective. After the march, of course, this differences will continue. But, there are very few precedents of an alliance that goes beyond the most engrained of the establishment and the most ‘hardcore’ of the Left in favour of peace and a negotiated solution. Even the FARC and the ELN gave their support to the march.

Nevertheless, the pece march, ironically, despite its unifying character, also surfaced deep social and political divisions that the peace process has accentuated. Oponents of the march included the rare combination of the Democratic Alternative Pole (el PDA or El Polo, one of Colombia’s few progressive/left-wing parties that grew out of the demobilization of the M-19 guerillas), even though Polo congressmen and Mayor Ivan Cepeda and Gustavo Petro atended, and of course ex-President and his Puro Centro Democratico/Pure Democratic Centre, Alvaro Uribe. The Leftists, for their part, did not want to legitimize a politicization of the peace process used by the President for his re-election. The Uribistas/right-wingers, considered that negotiating with an armed group would be to legitimize it and that the President is negotiating “issues of nation” with a group of “narcoterrorists”. In particular, the Ex-President through his online commentary on Twitter said that the march was “disrespectful” to the victims of the insurgents.

The march nevertheless has many political interests behind it – first of all, it legitimized, partially, the Marcha Patriotica and the ex-Senator. Also, just because Santos did not march to the Bolivar Plaza (as the editor of Semana recounts, there was ‘no photo with the President and Piedad Cordoba’), it is easy to see how the march gave the President a big help in achieving the ‘popular mandate’ for the peace talks. Ex-President Andres Pastrana and several others had been criticizing the President for a negotiation seemingly without any popular support being carried out in secrecy in a far-off capital in the Caribbean. This march gave Santos an answer to those critics.-

In Colombia, like in any part of the world, there is no free lunch. Peace in Colombia should be created a plurality of actors, and it should be for all Colombians no matter who they are, as was the march on Tuesday. Peace should not belong to any one political party or leader, but as the Democratic Alternative Pole has argued, this is not the case.

In the same sense, we must ask ourselves, this march and this peace, its for whom, and by whom? Those who currently have a seat at the negotiating table in Havana, discussing the beginning of the end of a long and blood-soaked conflict are generals, government representatives who are almost exclusively from Bogota. They are not a broad representation of those who have the most interest in a  demobilization of the FARC-EP – those living in the communities under their control. On the other hand, it is not the thousands of forced combattants/child soldiers that are representing the FARC-EP at the table, nor their victims, but Ivan Marquez, the no. 2 in this guerrilla organization and the leader of the Caribbean Block, who is wanted for several counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Interpol and the Colombian justice system.

In other words, what is being negotiated in Havana is a peace between murderers. The government as much as the guerrillas claim that they are the victims and that neither has committed to recognizing their complicity or facing their victims.

This lack of recognition of their crimes (from both parties), and this discourse in PRO of peace (which was the official government line at the march) was very different to the many placards from victim’s groups marching on the streets of Bogota that demanded memory, justice, and truth.

Not to say that the good should the be the enemy of hte perfect, but it must be recognized that like everything in Colombia, this process is experiencing a centralization and a bureaucratization which is taking away power and a place to speak for the communities that continue to live in Colombia’s multiple war zones. As analysts of the CINEP have argued, a durable and legitimate peace needs to be regionalized/come from the rural areas.

The government emphasis on prudence (which the guerrillas have also respected) towards the talks makes much sense given the chaotic nature of the previous attempt in the Caguán. Some have talked of submitting the accord to a Constituent/popularly elected Assembly or putting it to a referendum as was done in Guatemala (which could be coopted and defeated by the right-wing). Nevertheless, it would be a shame if this peace, like the incomplete peace of 58 which ended the era of “La Violencia” but began the era of the FARC, would be like the war in Colombia – imposed by the powerful on ‘The Other Colombia’ without consulting nor giving space for the voices who live there.

Uribe and his ‘Pure Democratic Centre’ movement say that they are not opposed to peace per se, but that they are against ‘peace with impunity’. The diversity in the march Tuesday perhaps showed that the majority of Colombians want to put their differences aside and take advantage of this rare opportunity for a viable accord with the guerrilla force that just a few years ago was labeled ‘narcoterrorist’ and just a few decades ago was thought invincible. Nevertheless, just because the Uribistas have not gone out into the streets marching does not mean that they do not have support, nor that all victims are in favour of the process.

Peace, like everything, will come with a price. the FARC-EP have repeatedly said that they will not go to jail under any circumstances as part of an agreement. They consider themselves the victim of state and paramilitary violence; they want to do politics with guarantees of security and they do not want to address their victims, to say nothing of paying jail time for their crimes.

So, one could say that in a way, Alvaro Uribe is right. Undoubtedly, there must be a trade-off between ‘peace’ and ‘justice’. Many on the Left, with  good reason, were very critical of the demobilization process with the AUC paramilitaries. Nevertheless, it is very strange that the voice which is asking for justice for the FARC-EP for their crimes is the counterinsurgency ex-President, and that other commentators who criticized the deal with the paras are mute on this point. In any event, it has to be said that that balance between peace and justice is a very delicate and controversial issue; within the mainstream media, politicians, and the majority of analysts I have read who are in favour of the process, there is a language of forgiveness and reconciliation used which presupposes that the victims of the FARC-EP owe the guerrillas forgiveness because they all owe the country reconciliation. However, the trade-off between how much peace and how much justice is not something that can be imposed from Havana or Bogota. The peace in 58 was a peace between murderers, powerful interests, and it was imposed, leaving open and unhealed the wounds that would leave the soil of Colombia fertile for the bloodshed of the next half-century.

 

Finally, the war in Colombia in many ways is and is not against the FARC-EP. These guerrillas continue to displace, kill, threaten, forcibly recruit, and commit all kinds of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the violence of new paramilitary groups is much more of a threat to public security than are the guerrillas, as reported by the conflict think tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris. This is not to say that the human suffering of the victims of the FARC-EP should be given less priority because the violence of the emerging paramilitaries is greater, but it is to say that a peace accord with the FARC-EP (and even with the ELN) will not put an end to war and violence in Colombia in a holistic way.

In fact, on Tuesday morning before the march Presidenet Santos on his Twitter account recognized the unfortunate murder of Ever Antonio Cordero Oviedo, a human rights activist working towards land restitution who was killed in Valencia, Cordoba. This man was but one of thousands of Colombians who continue to be victimized by this new manifestation of paramilitarism, for whom the government discourse that these groups are ‘merely criminal gangs’ reduces them to being outside of the ‘armed conflict’ and into the realm of ‘general delinquency’. In other words, for these thousands of victims, there was no mass march. In these thousands are also ADOM in Chocó and the women of the Enchanted Valley in Cordoba.

In Colombia, economic development of certain sectors is tied to war. The war in Colombia is a kind of institution in and of itself. Disarming this institution (literally), whose roots are have nexuses with so many other institutions such as the political and economic power of the nation, as well as the military industrial complex, will come at a high price. The war in Colombia is a very profitable business, and to end it there has to be a fundamental change in Colombian society.

This peace process must therefore be transformative for Colombian society. It can not only be reconciliation between victims and perpetrators (two identities which often intersect), but also a new social contract that begins to break down that wall which divides The Two Colombias. The peace with the FARC-EP must be a process that not only begins other peaces with the ELN and the neoparamilitary groups, but also that begins a wider conversation about the structural violences of poverty, patriarchy, racism, inequality, state violence, and above all classism which produced the guerrillas in the first place

Will the country have this conversation? Who knows. 10 years ago it was impossible to imagine a negotiation with the ‘narcoterrorists’ and now it is something which receives general support. It took a decade of counterinsurgency, displacement, murders, cooptation by the state by paramilitarism, and Total War, but at least this march showed that Colombians can change their opinion and leave aside warmongering and hate against the guerrillas in favour fo a supposedly common good (a national peace). However this change, as what will come after it, will also have its price.

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