By Óscar Parra Castellanos, EL ESPECTADOR, September 1, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Yamile Salinas Abdala always asked that, when we cited her work in a text, her name be spelled out completely, including her mother’s surname. I always remember her in front of her library, wearing some poncho or other to protect her from the cold in the hills, gentle, smoking a cigarette, and sipping a coffee. Her study, full of books and documents about the violence and the land in Colombia, revealed her primary professional obsession: documenting the way that business owners, politicians, public servants, and paramilitaries were related in different ways to an enormous business of land accumulation at the expense of the poor campesinos and indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.

When I first met her, almost ten years ago, she opened the doors of her house and her files so that we could use journalism to recount the painful stories, full of legal twists and turns, in which humble families ended up confronting some palm oil company belonging to some ex-Minister or other, or a multinational mining company with reported connections to the paramilitaries. And when I say she opened the doors, I’m referring to the fact that her apartment was a pilgrimage for reporters who wanted to hear her advice on how to figure things out and write their stories accurately.

The peaceful life she led in her house contrasted with the fights she got into with her investigations. During her last years, she wrote several reports with backing by Indepaz (Institute for the Study of Development and Peace), where she outlined a hypothesis that was bolstered with the passage of time: since the middle of the ‘90’s, they perfected a formula to take great quantities of land away from campesinos and indigenous communities, to be able to set up huge agro-industrial, agro-forest, mining-energy businesses, or the infrastructure they needed.

The formula includes the massacre and displacement if these communities so as to empty the territories and later to “legalize” the theft of the land. Among the personages who created and have perfected that “recipe”, you find powerful politicians, ex-Presidents, ex-Ministers, Members of Congress, military, paramilitaries who need to launder their fortunes, and business owners who are not very transparent, who would sell anything, up to and including their consciences.

That relationship among business owners, politicians, and mafia, united by paramilitarism, was the centerpiece of one of her major investigations, the one of the Padilla Parqueadero (parking lot) in 1998, when a group of officials in the Attorney General’s Office raided a property that was full of accounting documents belonging to the Self-Defense Forces commanders Carlos and Vicente Castaño. This story demonstrates the level of involvement of the establishment with the AUC’s killing machine. Yamile frequently said that if the legal system had acted effectively with the discovery found in the Parqueadero Padilla operation, they would have been able to halt the slaughter that was continuing all over the country. Of course, all of that work put her in danger. The intimidations didn’t stop, especially those from the business owners who threatened to sue her because of what she revealed in her reports.

When I was working at Verdad Abierta (Open Truth), and later in management at Rutas del Conflicto (Routes of the Conflict), she was always a kindly and disinterested counselor. A teacher. Among the editorial staff at Rutas del Conflicto, we called her “the oracle”, recalling that character in the movie Matrix, who gave the visitors cookies while giving them ruthless information about their destinies. Every time we had a doubt, she was always ready with a suggestion, a correction, to accompany.

During the past year, at Rutas del Conflicto we had the enormous good fortune to have her as a co-worker. In her severe attorney suit, she added a new facet; she became the editorial director of an animated series on the Internet (“How are they taking our land away from us?”). The Heinrich Böll Foundation supported this, and in it we told about part of her life’s work. The discussions between her and the rest of the team showed how she could explain highly complicated stories of legal issues in a simple manner, and without exposing us to a lawsuit.

During the final months we were working on the second season. On the day she died, Yamile went to see the first episode, about a company that ended up legalizing the crookedness of an emerald dealer, supported by the recent administrations, and who accumulated thousands of hectares by stealing them from the Sikuani Indigenous Community. She felt very close to that story, because she had spent part of her childhood on the savannas of Meta Province.

She also helped prepare a manual for the organization Consejo de Redacción[1] showing how to use journalism to cover those histories of land accumulation. We wanted to see her seated at the release of that book at the end of this year.

But her time was up and she is gone, and so I have not been able to thank her. Yamile, our friend and teacher is gone, and she leaves a great void. Huge hugs to her family, to Camilo, and to Natalia. All of the comrades of Yamile Salinas Abdala at Rutas del Conflicto are with them in this great sorrow, and we are completely committed to continue working to publish her legacy, so necessary for this country.

[1] Consejo de Redacción (Editorial Board) is an international organization devoted to investigative journalism.

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