By Sebastián Forero Rueda, EL ESPECTADOR, September 26, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
They are preparing the San Matías copper mine in this region, one of the largest in the country, in the midst of a dispute among the AGC, known as the Clan del Golfo, the Caparrapos (a drug trafficking gang), and the 18th Front of the FARC Dissidents. In the middle of that, the leaders are defending the implementation of the Peace Agreement, and are trying to obtain a seat in Congress through the Special Transitory Circumscriptions of Peace.
On the left side of the road that leads into Puerto Libertador, after you pass a rickety Welcome sign, there are dozens of shacks that are being used as houses where hundreds of families are now living—some 700, according to calculations by the Mayor’s Office—in what’s now a neighborhood of squatters. They keep arriving every day, gradually, fleeing from the controls by the armed groups in the towns (veredas), leaving behind the farms where they grew up as campesinos. They do it because dead people’s bodies keep appearing in those towns and on the paths that connect them. Last August 14, on the road that joins the districts (corregimientos) of La Rica and Juan José, a workman, Ofenix de Jesús Concha Taborda, was found murdered. His body lay there on the ground for 36 hours, because there is no one to perform the proper procedure in the rural areas. It’s the same road where last September 21 an Army truck was attacked with explosives and five soldiers were killed.
The El Alacrán mine is located twenty kilometers away from the urban part of the town; There’s an unpaved road that takes more that half an hour. The path is solitary and SUV’s marked with the logo Córdoba Minerals come and go. That is the company that is operating in the area, and its machinery is what keeps the road passable. El Alacrán is a town that was founded by the first miners when they arrived forty years ago, when there was a rumor going around that there was gold. They stayed, put up their houses made of boards, and had children. Now those children have children and around 1,200 people live in the town. In the center of town there is a church and some grocery stores. In one of the stores, where they sell shoes and perfumes, there are graffiti painted green that stand out: “AGC is present here”.
Eliécer Velásquez received us there, in the second week of September. He’s the leader who is most representative of the community, but he’s also the one that’s most at risk. He has been the President of the Community Action Board since 2012 and has twice been a candidate, in 2015 and 2019, for the Puerto Libertador City Council. The first time, in October of 2015, he was arrested a few days before the election because the Attorney General’s staff thought he belonged to the paramilitary group that was operating in the area, the Clan Úsuga, now the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC). He was in jail for five months, but was later set free, because there wasn’t any evidence that he was connected with the armed groups.
He undertook the leadership of the community in the talks with Córdoba Minerals, the company that’s carrying out the San Matías copper project in Puerto Libertador. It consists of around 15,000 hectares, with 23 concession contracts, which are in the exploration phase. San Matías is one of the most ambitious mining projects in the country. In fact, it’s one of the 45 projects declared to be in the national interest. At present, the only mine that produces copper in Colombia is El Roble, in Chocó Province, and it produces nearly 850 tons every day. When San Matías starts to operate, according to the company’s general manager, Santiago Varela, it will produce 8,000 tons per day in its first years, and it could reach up to 16,000 tons per day. It’s projected to produce USD $180,000,000 in royalties.
Córdoba Minerals is an affiliate of Córdoba Minerals Corp., a Canadian company listed on the Toronto and New York stock exchanges. It’s part of the Ivanhoe Mines group, which operates the second largest and also the third largest copper mines in the world. “The one behind the whole group is Robert Friedland, the most successful individual in the mining industry in terms of discoveries in recent years,” explains the company’s general manager.
The problem is that the area of the project includes the territory where the community of El Alacrán is located. The local and national authorities have mediated the dialogs, but, as the Puerto Libertador Secretary of Government, Rafael Martínez, admits, the conferences have not been easy, and in the meetings, the multinational company has made its dominant position very clear.
In July 2020, Eliécer Velásquez filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, pointing out that a paramilitary chieftain with the AGC in the area had warned him that an official in social matters at the Córdoba Minerals Company had gone to the armed group to offer them two million pesos (roughly USD $526) to kill him. (For her safety, we are not revealing her name.) The paramilitary chieftain had told him, in the presence of a witness, that he refused to do it when he found out that she worked for the mining company. The paramilitary was José Matides Lora, known as “Pollo Gordo” (“Fat Chicken”) He was killed by the authorities in the Operation Saint George carried out in Puerto Libertador in July of 2020. After the operation, the Armed Forces announced that he was the second in command of the Rubén Darío Ávila understructure of the AGC, otherwise known as Clan del Golfo, a group that is present in the area. The operation was part of the Second Agamemnon Campaign, in which the Armed Forces deployed to fight that armed group, especially in Antioquia, Chocó, and Córdoba.
For complaining in the local media that an official of the Company had offered money to kill him, Elíecer Velásquez was the subject of a charge of criminal libel by the Attorney General’s Office, after the Córdoba Minerals Company filed their complaint. The Company manager, Santiago Varela, confirmed that the official named was connected to the Company, but alleged that he was unaware of, and had not received formal notification of any legal action. “Córdoba Minerals always acts within the law and with respect for human rights. He categorically denied any practice that ran counter to the rights of a citizen. We know of no complaint filed by Eliécer; we only know of him because of the complaint we filed for libel,” he maintained. The investigation of Eliécer’s complaint was assigned in February of 2021 to Unit 219 of the Attorney General’s Office in Bogotá, which specializes in human rights.
Around 70% of the land in Puerto Libertador is the subject of existing or requested mining company concessions. According to data from the National Mining Agency, the 37 mining titles now in effect in the municipality occupy an area of 46,000 hectares, and the 62 pending applications cover another 62,000 hectares. The signing of the Peace Agreement in November 2016, and the subsequent exit of the now-defunct FARC, created potential for mining activity in southern Córdoba.
In a wake-up, they changed the purpose of the land in Puerto Libertador. From one minute to another, it went from a municipality devoted to agriculture and became a mining and energy municipality. But here the people had not lived from mining in ancestral times, except in the specific case of El Alacrán, says José David Ortega, a director and spokesman for the Campesino Association of Southern Córdoba (Ascusucor), from the Bolivarian Pontifical University en Montería, where he was attending a meeting of leaders from the area.
He has lived in Montería for several years, because he had to get out of Puerto Libertador. His life was at risk and he had to go around in an armored car with two bodyguards that were assigned to him by the National Protection Unit. Ascusucor and the Campesino Association for the Development of Alto Sinú (Asodecas) are the two principal organizations based in southern Córdoba that have shouldered the task of implementing the Peace Agreement in the midst of the advance of mining and energy in the territory. They have pushed the National Integrated Program for Substitution of Crops for Illegal Use (PNIS) and have promoted agricultural reform.
They have a vision about the war in southern Córdoba that’s different from that of the national government. The authorities repeat that, “The coca crops are the gasoline for the armed conflict.” In fact, according to the United Nations, in southern Córdoba between 2019 and 2020, the coca increased by 30%, located in around 3,740 hectares in Puerto Libertador, Tierralta, Montelíbano, and San José de Uré.
But Ortega provided a different reading. In May of 2019, the Caparrapos gang, or Virgilio Peralta Arenas Bloc (a faction of the AGC at war with that group in the region), carried out an incursion into the District (corregimiento) of Brazo Izquierdo, in San José de Uré. There they made all of the people that live there come together, and under the helpless eyes of the people, they killed Jader Manuel Pertuz and Jader Leonel Polo, who were beneficiaries of PNIS as harvesters. “They were leaving a message that they didn’t want any other people in that territory,” said Ortega. On that same day, the same group that was going around in the countryside murdered a farmer, Luis Fernando Velásquez and decapitated him. A month later, the victim was a campesino, Manuel Osuna Tapias. His face was tortured with a pliers, and he was decapitated with a machete. At that time, there was one of the largest recent displacements in the area, when around 1,700 people were displaced.
“If this was about the coca, the first thing the groups would do is generate conditions for the people so they can stay and grow it; they don’t kill people and tell them to get out. How is an unoccupied territory going to grow coca for the armed groups if there’s nobody left to plant it? The question is, who benefits when the territory is empty? And here is an examination of the number of mining titles that have been granted in the territory,” José David Ortega emphasized.
Leaving from the port of Frasquillo in Tierralta, upstream in the Sinú River, through the Urrá Reservoir, after nearly an hour by boat, between mountains and thick vegetation, there appears the settlement of Puerto Ceniza. In the small community meeting house, made of wood with a zinc roof, some 50 leaders and Presidents of boards in the area are waiting for Arnobis Zapata, President of the National Association of Campesino Reserve Areas, national spokesman for the coca growers, and a member of Ascsucor.
He came, along with Asodecas, to explain the concept that the government has been talking about in the area: the conservation contracts for those who live in a forest reserve area.
The people in attendance listen carefully while he describes the undesirability of signing a contract that, he says, doesn’t provide a formal title for the campesinos. Next, they listen to him talk about the current state of the PNIS program, because Arnobis was one of the principal leaders who, when the program was being put together after the signing of the Peace Agreement and it was community by community, together with the National Government and the representatives of the FARC, worked to convince the campesinos that crop substitution was the alternative.
Today he has to face the families that are complaining that they have been betrayed, because they tore out the coca but the projects never arrived. According to the United Nations, 99% of the more than 6,350 families that signed up for the program in southern Córdoba complied. At the meeting, the community is complaining that, after the bimonthly payments for food security, the long-term productive projects never came and they were left with their home gardens that furnished them with supplies that were in poor condition.
The paramilitaries of the AGC would not permit the delegate from the former guerrillas in the PNIS to attend the meeting. Their control over the territory is ironclad, even though they are disputing it, according to the Public Defender, with the new Román Ruiz 18th Front of the FARC dissidents and the Caparrapos gang, or the Virgilio Peralta Arenas Bloc.
“Right now what we’re doing is trying to get the people to come back again and get together, to go back to talking about the Peace Agreement. The government is in an economic reactivation process, and we are in an organizational reactivation. Yes, it’s hard, but we think we have a possibility of moving the people to favor the implementation of the Peace Agreement,” says Arnobis.
That flow is still moving in favor of what was agreed; the campesino associations are trying to channel it into the seat for peace in the Chamber of Representatives, because this territory has one of the 16 special circumscription seats that were revived by the decision of the Constitutional Court. Nevertheless, the principal leaders of the organizations have had to be displaced and leave the territory, and they have to go around in armored SUV’s and with bodyguards. How does a leader go back to a territory to campaign when he or she has been driven out, and is notorious, where the leader has been declared a military objective? Now, if that leader had been driven out because positions taken had caused clashes with the armed actors that are there, is that armed actor going to permit people to vote for that leader there?” explains José David Ortega.
They know that the interests they are confronting are no small thing. Arnobis sums them up: the economic sectors that want mining-energy exploitation in the territory; the local, traditional political families, that are looking for a way to seize congressional seats by using organizations they control; and the national government, which sees them as obstacles to the implementation of their policy of peace with legality.
Before 6 pm. Arnobis has to be on his way back to Montería, where he has been based for a couple of years. At the beginning of 2021 he was arrested by the authorities for carrying a gun without a permit, and because of that charge, which is not yet resolved, he has restrictions on his mobility and can only travel between Montería and the municipalities in southern Córdoba. But at all times, he must spend the night in the provincial capital.
*This production is part of the special ‘Defending the peace: a high risk effort’, supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Colombia Foundation—FESCOL, through its project ‘Violence and Local Political Order in the Post-Agreement’.
**With the collaboration on the ground of local journalist Yamir Jhan Pico, of Caribe Noticias 24/7.