El Espectador, September 15, 2019
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Eight leaders from Casanare are in legal trouble because, according to the Attorney General’s Office, they are part of a group of criminals organized for the purpose of trying to obstruct the work of the oil company Frontera Energy.
On November 27,2018, the Police and the Army arrested Ferney Salcedo, Yulivel Leal, Jesús Leal, Miguel Ángel Rincón, Carmen Iraida Salcedo, Josué Eliécer Rincón, and María Teresa Rincón, along with their neighbor, Jerónimo Salcedo, in San Luis de Palenque (Casanare Province). Besides the fact that the first seven are all related, they have one other thing in common: they have led protests against the oil well activity that the United States business, Frontera Energy—formerly Pacific Energy—is carrying out in the region. Since their arrests, Colombian organizations have complained that this is a persecution and they are seeking international intervention.
The Armed Forces insist that they are dealing with an organized criminal gang (GDO in Spanish) that takes advantage of social protest as a “façade” to harass the work of the hydrocarbon companies, such as Frontera Energy. The eight have now been charged and are in custody. The case is advancing, and this same Monday, the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) and the Corporation for Community Consulting and Training (Cospacc in Spanish), which have been following the case, took the file to the United Nations Commission for Human Rights in Geneva (Switzerland).
The two organizations filed complaints before the Arbitrary Arrest Work Group in the office headed by Michelle Bachelet. They complain that the people arrested in this case are “in custody only because they participated in social organizations, held meetings, and promoted peaceful demonstrations” to protest the actions of the multinational Frontera Energy. The document, which El Espectador has obtained, questions, for example, why the principal witness in the case is a company official and why, in addition, the entities that are in charge of the case are receiving money from this and other hydrocarbon companies.
The criminal case
The Attorney General’s investigation began on January 25, 2018, based on a complaint by the mining company’s lawyers. At that time the company was called Pacific Stratus Energy. In the complaint, the company alleged that Ferney Salcedo appeared to have led several marches and “urged the community” to block the roads. The investigating agency then set up an inquiry and intercepted Salcedo’s telephone calls and those of people close to him. Ten months later the group was arrested. The Attorney General charged the eight with the crimes of obstructing the roads, criminal conspiracy, and violence against a civil servant.
As can be seen in the criminal complaint against the eight leaders, the Salcedos, the Leals and the Rincóns are alleged to be a “criminal corporation” since 2012, supposedly led by Ferney Salcedo. The Attorney General claims in the document, which is in this newspaper’s possession, that the alleged GDO has taken advantage of its right to protest as a “façade” for acting against Frontera Energy with other economic interests, and has used “the general public to lead the to commit acts of terror, violence against civil servants, injuries to people in the community, damage to the property of others and obstruction of public roads”.
For example, they attributed the damage to the company’s infrastructure to the GDO. The complaint reads: “some subjects in masks, riding horses and carrying home-made weapons used to throw rocks, blocked the access roads to the Cubiro Bloc—one of the Frontera Energy wells, in the rural area of San Luis de Palenque–, and as a result of these unpeaceful demonstrations, more than 12 vehicles were hit by the rocks thrown by the demonstrators. This also caused major material and economic losses to the company, valued at approximately 22,600 million pesos (roughly USD $7,533,000)”.
But they also charged Jesús Leal and Ferney Salcedo with carrying illegal weapons—for some cartridges they discovered during the arrests—and attempted murder because Salcedo supposedly ordered the killing of an ESMAD agent. According to the Attorney General, during the protest on January 26 of last year, the agent John Jairo Duque was tied to a horse by some masked riders who dragged him for almost 300 meters, trying to kill him, but he was only injured, because his uniform protected him. The investigator believed that this was done by people that Salcedo commanded.
Prosecutor 135 of the organized crime unit, Harles Max Cortés, was in charge of the criminal investigation. He was attached to a Support Structure (EDA in Spanish), part of an group of investigators focused exclusively on crimes against the hydrocarbon sector. They are paid with money furnished by the businesses in this sector to the Attorney General’s Office or to the Defense Ministry under contracts. A number of hydrocarbon companies working in Colombia sign these million-dollar contracts with the government, as revealed by the news agency Rutas del Conflicto (Conflict Routes). And the case of Frontera Energy is no different.
On November 19, 2018, nine days before the leaders were arrested, the oil company signed a contract with the Defense Ministry. In the contract document, in the possession of this newspaper, the entity headed by Guillermo Botero commits Colombian military units to provide “special protection” to the areas that are of interest to Frontera Energy in these projects: Corcel, Llanos 25, Arrendajo, Casimena, Cubiro –where the protests that put these leaders in legal trouble took place—Cravo Viejo, and Cachicamo. In return for this protection, the company had to pay 2,340,000,000 pesos (roughly USD $780,000).
On the day after the contract was signed, the Attorney General’s Office listened to Julián René Gómez, a Frontera Energy official, who gave the following sworn statement: “Ferney Salcedo is the one who organizes the stoppages to confront the Armed Forces and he also takes control over the roads”. He said that Jesús Leal is the second in command an he is the one who trains and organizes the people, and that “Miguel Ángel Rincón and his wife Carmen Iraida carry out the contracts, agitate the masses and confront the Armed Forces; Teresa Rincón says that her farm La Frontera serves as the meeting point; and Salcedo Betancourt controls the roads.”
This alleged criminal organization “uncovered” by Gómez is the same one that the prosecutors used in the formal criminal complaint and which, they insist, shows the functioning of a GDO. Besides that, on the day after he made his statement, two days after the signing of the contract, November 22, 2018, military intelligence filed a report in which they alerted the existence of a criminal structure with a façade of social protest, as stated by the prosecutor in the case in the hearings that commenced the prosecution of the eight leaders.
In addition, in spite of the fact that throughout the case they have treated the leaders like an organized criminal gang, the definition used for groups like the Rastrojos or the Puntilleros, the eight defendants who used to be called “the jockeys with masks” do not appear in any other records kept by any security agencies. For example, in an answer to a formal petition, the Attorney General’s office responded on December 19, 2018 to CSPP and to Cospecc, when they requested identification of all the GDO in the country, the word “jockeys” does not appear. In fact, of the 26 groups that are identified as GDO in Colombia, none operate in Casanare, where all of these events took place.
Frontera assured El Espectador that in addition to
the blockages that took place during the protests and the possible property
damage, officials of the company had received threats and had been the victims
of personal aggressions. As to the description of the leaders as a GDO, the
company clarified that “they have left the characterization of these activities
in the hands of the prosecutors and the judges and have complete confidence
that the decisions they have made and continue to make are just and right.”
For the organizations that
are denouncing the prosecution of the eight leaders as a persecution, “the
actions by Intelligence and the criminal prosecutions that have taken place in
the case are arbitrary. Their objective is to weaken the process of social
mobilization and exercise of rights that took place in San Luis de Palenque”.
Because of all of that, CSPP and Cospecc are asking the UN High Commissioner
for Human Rights to intervene. They insist that the prosecution of these eight
people is taking place in a context of “a generalized increase in the attacks
on social leaders”. They maintain that in Colombia there is “an unjustified
delay” in the proceedings.