By Camilo Alzate González, Colombia+20, EL ESPECTADOR,

October 20, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

An annex to the Final Report of the Truth Commission reviews the relationship between mining titles and the armed conflict in the Andágueda River region, in the municipalities of Lloró and Bagadó, a region devastated by the war in Chocó.

The image of Fr. Betancur was more like one of a gunslinger from the Wild West than that of the Claretian missionary that he was. Anybody that knew José Antonio Betancur in the jungles that marked the border between Chocó and Risaralda remembers him as a rugged and implacable kind of guy, riding a horse, with a revolver in his belt, forcing the Katío indigenous people to sell all of the gold they took out of the Andágueda River only to him, and that he paid them with meat, salt, or consignments he brought on muleback from Andes in Antioquia, or from Pueblo Rico in Risaralda.

That priest-pioneer capsulizes the colonizer spirit of the Catholic Church, personifying the firm purpose to “civilize” the indigenous people, while at the same time using them as feudal servants for his personal enterprise. Betancur managed the direction of a boarding school in Aguasal, a remote community on the Andágueda River in Chocó, where he owned pastures and dozens of head of cattle. He refused to allow the Katío people to speak their native language and chased out the “jaibanás”, which is the name given by the indigenous people to their traditional doctors.

Father Betancur was immortalized in “The Gold and the Blood”, the famous investigation by reporter Juan José Hoyos, who traveled that region on many trips for more than a decade as a correspondent for EL TIEMPO. Hoyos reconstructed by word of mouth the story of the bloody war unloosed between several indigenous families for the possession of a gold mine that rural squatters from Antioquia had founded and exploited at the heads of the Andágueda River.

That dispute had been instigated by the Police and some wealthy miners in the Andes Municipality, but other outside agents intervened, including the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). This last organization was, according to the Truth Commission and with the investigation of journalist Juan José Hoyos, the only one that was able to stop the bloodshed among the indigenous people at the end of the ‘80’s, when the gold mine was closed.

Data from Colombia’s Victims Unit show eleven confrontations between 1987 and 1989, with a total of 52 dead, 30 wounded, 7 disappeared, and 6 kidnapped, including the victims of a massacre committed by the ELN in 1987 in one of its first incursions into Chocó. All of the victims were residents of the same indigenous reservation.

An annex to the Truth Commission Report, titled “Mining concessions to companies in collective territories, armed control, illegal mining, and displacement in the collective territory Cocomopoca and the Indigenous reservation Alto Andágueda,” summarizes this story, which is the prelude to a specific case where the interests of big business and private individuals over the countryside ended up in fueling the war.

The use of “straw purchasers” of mining titles

The Andágueda River region was where the Emberá Katîo people signed the deed for the first indigenous reservation in Chocó Department, in 1979. Later on, in 1999, the Afro-Colombian people settled in the middle and lower river valley requested the titling of their territories, a process that took 12 years because of the bureaucratic delays and institutional impediments that occurred, principally during the administration of Álvaro Uribe.

The area is made up of the Chocó municipalities of Lloró and Bagadó, that were declared Strategic Mining Areas, almost in their totality. This was “in spite of the existence of overlaps with the indigenous reservation and the collective territories belonging to the Afro-Colombian communities. This process is what undermined their right to free and informed prior consent,” asserts the Truth Commission.

In the view of the investigators, that was no accident. The stalling to recognize the rights of the Afro-Colombian people over their collective territories coincided with the interests of the big mining companies that were trying to get their hands on the enormous resources that exist in the area where, ever since the ‘90’s. there has been a strong illegal mining dynamic.

“First came the armed actors, then the yellow machines, and with the two they wove a network of extraction that devastated the countryside,” reads the document. “Mining with heavy machinery is not a legal problem, but rather one of economic vulnerability. The poorest communities are those that ‘permit’ the use of illegal miners, and the municipalities that historically have been abandoned by the government are more susceptible to its expansion, which demonstrates that mining is an effect and not a cause of the violence.

This region and other bordering watersheds suffered several very violent guerrilla takeovers, like the attacks at Bagadó, Carmen de Atrato, Santa Cecilia, and San Marino. Besides that, at least seven different armed actors were present in the decade from the ‘80’s to 2000. There were fronts from the ELN, M-19, EPL, the FARC, the ERG, the paramilitaries, and the Colombian Armed Forces.

The annex to the Report refers to interviews with 18 victims, five witnesses, and six experts familiar with the region, but it also includes a broad collection of documents that prove, among other things, that during the administration of Álvaro Uribe, some twenty mining titles inside the collective territories near the Andágueda River were issued. The majority of those mining titles belonged to the South African multinational Anglo Gold Ashanti, or to companies linked with it, but also to Santiago Uribe Vélez, the former President’s brother, who has been investigated for his alleged links to paramilitary groups.

As EL ESPECTADOR revealed in its 2013 investigation, cited by the Commission in its Report, at least three of the mining titles which later were in the power of the multinational, were first awarded to Santiago Uribe Vélez, in what the Truth Commission judged to be a model of “straw purchasing”. “This case provides evidence of the connection between mining concessions and the armed conflict, demonstrating how straw purchasing of mining rights operated simultaneously with the denial of the right to collective titling in Cocomopoca between 2002 and 2016,” asserts the Commission.

That’s why the investigators have no doubt of the relationship between the mining interests and the violence. “To the violent pressure exercised by armed groups (both legal and illegal) was added the pressure on the territories that was exercised by administrative agencies in the mining-energy sector.”

The relationship of the multinationals to the war

The Truth Commission speaks on its own behalf on this case. It places responsibility on the South African multinational Anglo Gold Ashanti, one of the largest companies dedicated to gold mining in the world, and owner of most of the mining titles on the Andágueda River.

According to the Commission, Anglo Gold Ashanti signed an agreement with the Colombian Army under which it furnished 10,176,000,000 pesos (roughly USD $ 5,088,000 at the exchange rate at that time) to Army units of the 7th Division that were operating right in the region where those mining concessions in Chocó were located. That same model of agreements with the Colombian Army with multinationals was replicated in other regions of the country, even though that matter is not explored in the annex.

Some of the units that received money from the multinational were involved in the battles with the guerrillas, settled in the area from the ‘80’s, just in the context of that confrontation between 2002 and 2006 when 13 Afro-Colombian communities living in the collective territory of the Alto Atrato Community Council (COCOMOPOCA) “disappeared during the worst period of the confrontation,” states the Report. Also, “hundreds of Emberá Katío families disappeared from the reservation to cities like Medellín, Pereira, and Bogotá, trying to escape the violence, the economic vulnerability, and the risks to health.

The Commission also documented eleven bombings by the Colombian Army and Air Force on the reservation between 2007 and 2015. That provoked massive displacements of the communities and the emptying of the countryside. “It’s clear that the connection between military units and companies owning mining concessions in the territory of the reservation at Alto Andágueda has a direct relationship with a serious violation of human rights and an infraction of International Humanitarian Law, which prohibits forced displacement,” concludes the annex to the Commission’s Final Report.

As a final point, in 2021, a land restitution court found in favor of the Afro-Colombians of the Andágueda River with an order to return 73,317 hectares of their territories, where mining projects are not permitted without prior informed consultation with the communities.

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