Written by Daniel Edgar exclusively for SouthFront
The following is a translation of a news report about recent developments affecting the Zenú, an Indigenous people whose ancestral territories are located in the central northern province of Córdoba. In the early 1980s a major mining project commenced in their territories, preceded by the systematic purchase and expropriation of properties in the area with no mention of the enormous mineral wealth that lay beneath the surface. In this way, the purchasers successfully evaded the need to conduct prior consultations with the local communities and provide compensation for the ecological and social devastation that was to follow. Subsequently the ferronickel mining operation and smelter was acquired by the mining giant BHP Billiton, which it described as follows:
“Cerro Matoso, our 99.94 per cent owned nickel asset in Colombia, combines a lateritic nickel ore deposit with a ferronickel smelter. Cerro Matoso is the world’s second-largest producer of ferronickel and is one of the lowest-cost producers of ferronickel. The smelter produces high-purity, low-carbon ferronickel granules. Cerro Matoso has an estimated current reserve life of 32 years. Production in FY2012 was 48.9 kt (kilo-tons) of nickel in ferronickel form following the successful early completion of the planned furnace replacement.” (BHP Billiton, Annual Report, 2012; 29)
According to a recent report on large scale mining projects in Colombia the concession for Cerro Matoso covers almost 175,000 hectares. It has been ‘one of the lowest-cost producers of ferronickel’ in the world for the owners of BHP Billiton as all of the social and environmental costs have been externalized onto the local communities and workers. Additional profits have been generated by endemic corruption and legal and financial frauds in which politicians and bureaucrats have granted the mining concession with few reciprocal obligations and very low royalty payments, and have ignored persistent violations of the few legal and financial requirements that have been imposed.
Many experts and civil society organizations (including the national Office of the Auditor General) have been critical of the non-payment or underpayment of royalties and taxes by major mining and industrial projects in Colombia owned and operated by the parent companies of the coal mining project El Cerrejón and of failures to comply with due process more generally, as well as the substantial undervaluation of the value of the State´s stake in the El Cerrejón and Cerro Matoso projects (both were forced sales resulting from a privatization program imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank).
The renewal of BHP Billiton´s lease of Cerro Matoso by the National Congress in 2012 was strongly criticized as being an illegal arrangement that purports to confer legitimacy on the lease on extremely favourable terms for the company. Around the same time the Auditor General of the Republic noted two major violations of BHP Billiton’s legal and financial obligations in the management of Cerro Matoso, and announced the commencement of proceedings to recover millions of dollars worth of unpaid royalties. The statement added that the office “is absolutely certain that Cerro Matoso does not have an Environmental Licence for the new contract as is required by Law 99 of 1993.” (References for all of these allegations are included in a previous report by the author; Daniel Edgar, 2015.)
The project was recently sold by BHP Billiton to South 32, another mining company with legal domicile in Australia. While this transaction interrupted the chain of possession and (theoretical) legal and financial responsibilities, it appears to have been a cynical tactical manoeuvre as BHP Billiton and South 32 have many of the same major shareholders.
For most of its existence the mining project has operated in an almost clandestine manner, notwithstanding the enormous scale and lucrativeness of the project. Information about the project was largely non-existent for many years, apart from a few inane corporate reports and statements extolling the virtues of the project and its operators. As the Zenú communities in the region began to realize the scale of the project and suffer the environmental and social impacts, their members attempted to obtain information about the project and seek changes to the legal conditions and operating methods to reduce the environmental and social impacts.
The response was a savage wave of violence and persecution that systematically annihilated their social cohesion and obliterated their leadership and organizational capacity. In 1994 an article in the newspaper El Tiempo reported:
The ranch ‘Tranquilino Ayala’ is perched on the side of a small hill, facing a carpet of grass that shines with the morning dew and a muddy trail that connects with the path to Vidales. Last Monday the tranquility was broken by the passage of a group of sobbing Indians, bearing a grey coffin that contained the bullet-ridden body of Porfirio Ayala, the oldest son of Tranquilino.
The Indians threw the wooden box on their shoulders and departed from the main street of Vidales, climbing, among prayers and litanies, to the ranch built of straw and wild cane.
The corpse was covered by a veil and lay on the ground floor, next to an altar of summer flowers, paintings of virgins and sacred hearts, and two candles that the neighbors brought. Ferenciana Suárez, Porfirio’s mother, placed a cup of fresh water on the white tablecloth of the altar so that the spirit of her son could quench its thirst.
The cup of water remains in the same place nine days after the burial of Porfirio Ayala, the temporary secretary of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), killed at midnight on the 26th of March, a kilometre and a half from the urban area of San Andrés de Sotavento.
Along with him, two other prominent leaders were murdered: Héctor Aquiles Malo, the community’s foremost leader and second on the list for the Senate elections headed by Gabriel Muyuy, and the former secretary of ONIC, Luis Arturo Lucas, as well as the driver of the van in which they were travelling to the community of Gardenias, César Meza.
Their corpses were found the next day about thirty kilometres from the scene of the attack, on the road that joins Chinú and San Marcos. The van, which belonged to the community, was incinerated. Some people claim that the crime was committed by five men who were travelling in a white camper van.
The ruthless murders of the Indigenous leaders of the reservation are not isolated events. On the 19th of March 1993 two men murdered Indigenous teacher and community leader Gerardo Moreno, who had figured in the campaign list headed by Gabriel Muyuy for the 1991 parliamentary elections.
On the 11th of February, the Secretary of the Indigenous Community Council of Aserradero, Clemente Mendoza, was shot by four men who took him from his home. On the 3rd of March the leader Hernando Solano was murdered in a similar manner in the town hall of Nueva Esperanza. Fourteen days later, several men killed the leader of the Palmito community, Ferney Alvarez Conde, near his home.
The deaths of the Zenú leaders commenced when we began to organize ourselves to recover the land that landlords had taken from us by deceptive schemes, says José Lucas, brother of one of the leaders killed just before Easter the same year.
The Indigenous leaders and the relatives of the dead think that political motives are behind the massacre that is taking place, due to the force that the Indigenous movement has gained in the area.
However, the mayor of San Andrés de Sotavento, Juan Bautista Casado, affirms that it is urgent to investigate the reasons for the massacres and that it is better to wait until the investigation being conducted by the National Prosecutor’s Office is completed.
They have murdered our two candidates for the Senate, and the Indigenous candidate for mayor of San Andres, Eder Espitia, was threatened, says a leader of the village of Tuchín, a town wallowing in neglect, without water, sewerage infrastructure or street lighting. Even so, Tuchín is considered the commercial and crafts center of the Indigenous reserve. Two dusty streets cross the population of seven thousand inhabitants…
The heat is hellish. Throughout the town and along the paths and roads of the reserve you can see drowsy figures under large hats, gently rocking on the backs of the donkeys that walk without haste.
Tuchín is a reflection of what is happening in the rest of the municipality, except for the urban area of San Andrés de Sotavento, which is paved and has wide roads and well-constructed brick buildings.
In Tuchín there is also an atmosphere of anxiety. A few kilometres away lived two people who were murdered on the 26th of March. There are also other leaders who have been threatened. One of them, Alvaro Ortiz, managed to escape unharmed about ten days ago, when several men with automatic weapons went to find him at his ranch on the outskirts of the town, ten kilometres from San Andrés de Sotavento.
Their lives were the last thing that the Zenú began to lose. First they lost their language, their gods, their customs, their lands … their memory.
Their story is in the history books. They are descendants of the Caribes. The old chronicles say that the Zenú were a strong race, of proud men, with peaceful and brave customs and forthright in the defence of their land and their freedom.
Upon the arrival of the Spaniards, part of the area was ruled by the chief Tota. She was said to be the daughter of mythical heroes and was forbidden to step on the ground with her bare feet. In the temple, where Chinú now stands, there were 24 pillars with hammocks full of treasures brought by her subjects.
In San Andrés de Sotavento there was the chief Mekion, who continued to occupy this position even after the territory was turned into a Spanish possession and handed over to the Marquis Andrés Méndez. Later, in 1773 it became an Indigenous reservation.
The ancient Zenú were owners of the lowlands of the Cauca and San Jorge rivers. There, according to the book Pacificar La Paz, they built one of the most advanced civilizations of the tropical forests, based on a model of technical management of the floodplains that ensured abundant and permanent production of food for consumption and exchange with neighboring societies.
But that knowledge was diluted with time. Nor did they revive the practice of electing council members. The only traditional authority that continued to be followed by the Zenú was the captain, and the last of them was Eusebio Feria, an Indigenous man of average height, with a square face, thin hair, slanted eyes and a thunderous voice that summoned the inhabitants of Vidales accompanied by the beating of drums.
The first lands were lost when a new civilization came to inhabit what is now the centre of the municipality. The Indigenous inhabitants were displaced towards the forested areas, and as the territory was crossed by an increasing number of trails and roads they became farmers.
A large part of the land was transferred to new landowners by unscrupulous methods. The Indian, as he had no money to cultivate, went to the rich man of the town, Dionisio Beltrán, an Indigenous resident of Vidales, explains. If the rich man advanced him the value of a bushel of maize, the Indian, when harvesting, had to return two bushels. When the harvest was damaged, the rich man seized the lands of the Indian.
Then he and his family became day labourers for the new owner of the land, clearing the land and sowing pastures to raise cattle. When the work was completed, the native was fired.
At that time, about 50 years ago, the wage was worth about 10 cents; today it is worth a thousand pesos. That explains, in part, the misery that pervades the 18 townships of the municipality. In the Vidales school, for example, about 50 of the 400 children are sick with chickenpox. There are whole families affected by this scourge. They do not receive medical attention and malnutrition is rampant, especially in children.
Many of the school children do not have the fifty pesos a day that it costs to buy their lunch in the community centre. The director of the School, Sister María Elsy Oquendo, says that the facilities need repairs, and that there are few teaching materials and not enough desks. It is considered the best school in the municipality.
After the Indians lost their plots of land, it took several years before they began to lose their lives when the violence erupted. This occurred when the land occupations began. Until about twenty years ago, three thousand of the 83,000 hectares that make up the reserve in the regions of Córdoba and Sucre were occupied by Indigenous people, the rest were part of large haciendas (ranches).
Today the Indians have some 17,000 hectares. Many of the leaders who organized the land occupations have died. But those that remain recognize their achievements.
That is why more than 500 grieving Zenú gathered last Tuesday afternoon around a blue brick house in the community of La Esmeralda, to pray and pay their last respects to Luis Arturo Lucas. Something similar happened at the same time in three other locations in the reserve.
The tomb of Héctor Aquiles Malo, the chieftain of San Andrés de Sotavento, knew that they were going to kill him.
A few days after the elections, a plastic bag containing a box of matches and a handwritten letter threatening him appeared near his house: “Héctor Malo, guerrilla, paramilitary, they are going to kill you and they are going to burn you like Oswaldo Tehran.” The message was accompanied by a photo of Tehran.
What happened to Tehran is still remembered with horror by the Zenú Indians. The leader, one of the main promoters of land seizures, was killed in 1988, in Tuchin, as he was descending from a horse float. A day later he was buried in the cemetery of San Andrés de Sotavento. His tomb was opened that same night by strangers who set fire to the coffin.
The letter was revealed on the 25th of March during a meeting with community leaders at the Gardenias school. Three days later, Héctor Aquiles Malo was buried in a grave covered with a thick layer of cement and sealed with iron rods so that the same thing that happened to Oswaldo Tehran does not happen to him.
One can only marvel at the resilience and courage of these people that have refused to surrender their lands, livelihoods and families to the anonymous assassins, protected by the all-powerful regional, national and international economic and political elites that will stop at nothing to preserve their control over the region and the lucrative resources it contains.
Over twenty years after the events narrated above occurred little has changed, as the following report demonstrates.
In one decade, 48 Indigenous people assassinated, and a terrifying silence
By the Editors of Semana Magazine
The archives of the Zenú Resguardo (Reservation) of Alto San Jorge, the last Indigenous reservation to be constituted in Córdoba, are tainted with blood. The files recount a total of 48 people killed, a figure that contradicts the statistics maintained by other organizations. This community takes its cases one by one, and in the midst of new threats against the defenders of the territory against the damage caused by the mining operations, its members have not stopped appealing to the authorities to put an end to the impunity that their murderers enjoy.
Number of Zenú leaders assassinated per year in defence of Alto San Jorge
In 1999 its members initiated the process for the legalization of the reservation and to date they have not faltered in their vindication of the right to a healthy environment, directly confronting Cerro Matoso, the nickel mining company, whose annual production is 40 thousand tons.
“For a long time we were afraid. The assemblies to elect community leaders and governors had to be conducted in secret because after being elected they received death threats. Many people withdrew from the elections, others are no longer in the territory.” (Edwin Samuel Negrete Rivera, Zenú Governor.)
The range of mining operations by Cerro Matoso includes the municipalities of Montelíbano, Puerto Libertador, San José de Uré, La Apartada and Planeta Rica. The mining project and the struggles for the territorial rights of the indigenous people converge within an approximate perimeter of nineteen square kilometres.
The battles of the Zenú people have been marked by the violence of the illegal armed groups that operate in the region. “The dispute has demonstrated a systematic process of threats, persecution and murder of Indigenous leaders”, says Irrael Aguilar, a Zenú leader who for 18 years was governor and chieftain of the reservation. He also mentions that they have been confronted by the constant warnings of extractive companies in the region when they try to raise their voices.
Irrael Aguilar in Alto San Jorge
Aguilar has in his hands the document where the crimes against the 48 people that were murdered between 2004 and 2015 are consolidated. Although the crimes have been reported to the national Office of the Prosecutor General no substantial advances in the investigation of the cases are recorded.
While the deaths have been swallowed up by oblivion in a silenced territory, the living concentrate their efforts on defending what belongs to the Zenú. In March of this year, through Sentence T-733/17, the Constitutional Court ordered the multinational mining company Cerro Matoso to compensate for the environmental damage caused to the San Jorge ethnic communities and the serious health problems that residents of nearby communities suffer as a consequence of the nickel mining and smelting operations.
What could be a victory for the leaders is only the beginning of a new legal battle for compliance with the orders of the Court. They have demanded that the State grant them guarantees of protection in order to continue exercising leadership in the territory.
“Our leaders have already been threatened for talking about our duties and rights. There are eight leaders that are confronting Cerro Matoso and the only thing we ask is that the company comply with its obligations to the local communities: health, education, land. And that it does not destroy the environment because the fruit trees no longer produce fruit like they used to, the streams have been poisoned”, states Elubín Camargo Lazo, governor of Torno Rojo in the municipality of Puerto Libertador. “Some thought that we asked for money, but no, we do not ask for money, we ask for the future of our generations.”
In this regard, Luis Marulanda, Vice President of Corporate Affairs of Cerro Matoso said via email, dated on the 21st of August, that the company “rejects and condemns any act of violence, which includes any kind of inappropriate comments”. He also asked the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian community leaders to officially file their complaints, providing the respective evidence before the competent authorities, in order to investigate possible responsibility for the alleged facts.
The fight against a giant
Between 2011 and 2012, during the constitution process of the Reservation, the Indigenous leaders began to give an account of health problems, mainly among women and children. There was talk of skin infections and vision problems, cancer, in addition to abortions. The other, indisputable, problem was that the productivity of the land had diminished.“We conducted a massive and passive march against Cerro Matoso for 40 days; they sent out the ESMAD (heavily armed riot police), they beat us although we did not burn a single car of the company. What we did was camp on the road and demand our rights.” (Edwin Samuel Negrete Rivera, Governor Zenú.)
The communities then initiated a legal proceeding against Cerro Matoso and the Ministry of Environment to safeguard their right to a healthy environment. “We filed a legal protection order before the Administrative Tribunal of Córdoba and then before the Superior Court of Cundinamarca. None of the decisions were in our favor and the initial argument was that in the south of Córdoba there were no Indigenous communities. This made us angry. That is why we sought legal advice and decided to proceed again, but before the Constitutional Court”, explains Aguilar.
The Zenú leader summoned all the organizations of the south of Córdoba to a march in front of the facilities of Cerro Matoso. It commenced on the 25th of September 2013 and ended on the 30th of October with the signing of a memorandum of understanding that included, among other things, the construction of an aqueduct, roads and housing, start-up funding for sustainable projects, and granting scholarships for study. But most importantly, the path was cleared for the legal constitution of the Zenú Reservation of Alto San Jorge, with the backing of the National Government.
Legal title to seven areas had been formally recognized by Incoder in 1996, covering a total of 960 hectares owned by families of the Zenú Indigenous Reservation of Alto San Jorge.
In 2014, the Colombian Institute for Rural Development (Incoder), pursuant to Agreement 336 of the 27th of May, formalized the constitution of the Indigenous Reservation. This document sealed the first 16 years of territorial struggle for Irrael Aguilar Solano. The document turned out to be the most valuable trophy of his 29 years of leadership in the South of Córdoba.
But life has not been easy for him. He travels around the region in accordance with the requirements of a security scheme that the National Protection Unit established for him in 2014. His family has asked him several times to renounce his leadership role in San Jorge, but his vocation to serve his people is stronger.
“We are from San Andrés de Sotavento and our leaders taught us our rights as Indigenous people and the sacrifices we would have to make to get our territory back. From there the desire to organize our families was awakened, wherever they were.” (Irrael Aguilar Solano.)
“For my family, the best thing would be to retire, but I try to remain strong when I am with them. Tell them to be attentive and to develop self-protection mechanisms in the home. It is very hard to get to the house and our children tell us crying that they are afraid because they are going to kill me, but other forces are born to sustain me and to continue the fight”, he affirms with conviction.
The crime against the sheriff
One of the most difficult episodes that Irrael Aguilar and the Zenú people experienced during the process of constituting their territory as an Indigenous Reservation was the murder of the sheriff Emiro Manuel de la Rosa Polo. “We lived three years that are considered black years because many leaders lost their lives”, he recalls.
Just in the period between 2009 and 2011 forty members of the community were killed. In 2009, twelve people were killed; in 2010, eighteen people died and in 2011, ten more.
“Emiro was an important person for the reservation, recognized for his leadership and his capacity to unify the communities. His murder left a large void”, Aguilar recalls.
The crime occurred on the 6th of October 2009 at his home in the 27 de Julio neighbourhood in Montelíbano, in the presence of his wife and children. Two shots took the life of the person who was considered one of the principal instigators of the territorial struggle for the legalization of the Zenú Indigenous Reservation of Alto San Jorge and also the life, heart and soul of his family. “He was not threatened, he had no enemies, his life was dedicated to serving others and socializing with everyone in the community”, recalls Verlides Isabel Domínguez Zabaleta, his partner since she was 18 years old and with whom he had two girls and two boys.
“In 2009 they declared us to be a military objective, it was the most difficult moment. It has cost us the lives of many leaders, including the chief security guard of the reservation, which is the Indigenous Guard.” (Irrael Aguilar Solano.)
The weight of Emiro’s absence was felt in each meeting and step that took place in the reservation. All the leaders recognized him as a key person because of his power of convocation among the town councils and his knowledge of the process of constitution of the reservation, hence after his death the legal and territorial battles lost strength. Fear settled over the territory.
Emiro was the senior sheriff, therefore, he was part of the leadership that governed the reservation along with the mayor, captain major, general secretary, treasurer and attorney. However, there was another function that he also fulfilled with honour and that after his death left irreparable damage: he was a father and husband.
The first position he held among the Zenú people was that of a junior sheriff at the Villa Porvenir Town Hall in Montelíbano. His management skills and good work led him to occupy the position of Governor and finally that of the Major General Constable. His leadership skills were also apparent in the political scene: he aspired to membership of the Council of Montelíbano, endorsed by the Indigenous Social Movement, and only obtained 87 votes, which did not enable him to obtain the position.
In the months following the death of Emiro, the main concern of his family was the emotional health of Yeimer, the youngest of the four children, and who at only 10 years old saw how his father was murdered. “We had to accompany him a lot because he was afraid of everything. We were afraid to open the door of the house during the day”, explains Lucy De la Rosa, Emiro’s eldest daughter.
After the murder, the family did not receive threats, but they accepted necessary protection measures. The event tore them apart. “He kept the family together. When something happened everyone consulted him and nobody took a step without his opinion. He was a father, husband and exemplary leader. His death left us an immense void. Everything changed. I miss him a lot”, says his daughter.
Nine years have passed since Emiro’s murder and although colour has returned to life and smiles adorn the warm home, for its members it is impossible to contain the tears. The family went ahead thanks to the willpower of Verlides, they obtained half board as a result of Emiro’s work in Cerro Matoso, and each of the children managed to study and get ahead with their lives. However, impunity is still the ghost that surrounds them every day.“In the Prosecutor’s Office they do not tell us anything about the murder of Emiro. Sometimes they ask us if we know if he had enemies”, says Verlides.
Emiro’s is one of the 48 cases without clarification. Marcial Avilés, a teacher recognized for his leadership in Puerto Libertador, and Yolanda Isabel Ibáñez, an Indigenous governor, are part of that cruel number, and are also remembered for their contributions to the community.
Between the Court and Cerro Matoso
While the files for the crimes are gathering dust on the shelves of the judicial offices, the Zenú continue to demand action. Aguilar explains that the judgment of the Court orders Cerro Matoso to establish a Special Ethno-development Fund, whose purpose will be the reparation and compensation of the victims; initiate the procedures for the granting of a new environmental licence; that the Ministry of the Interior carry out a prior consultation with all the affected communities to establish prevention, mitigation and environmental compensation measures for the damages caused by mining exploitation; and to the Ministry of Health to establish teams to provide integral attention to the people registered in the census of the communities.
Cerro Matoso, meanwhile, has filed five reports with the Superior Court of Cundinamarca on compliance with the orders of the Constitutional Court. According to the company’s directives, the main divergence they have had with the communities was the budget requested for the prior consultation sessions.
From the 30th of May to the 10th of August of this year, thirteen sessions have been held to organize the prior consultation and no agreements have been reached with all the communities. The Ministry of the Interior called a new round of meetings at the end of August. Cerro Matoso requested the national government to advance the Prior Consultation with the Community Council of Boca de Uré.
“The order of the Constitutional Court covers 3,700 people, we have had 13 very extensive sessions to date, up to ten hours each, and have involved about 50 people from the communities with their advisers. We are in the process of defining the methodological route and there is a great divergence about this. The communities initially demanded 25 billion pesos as a budget to hire work teams to advance the entire process of the Prior Consultation. That figure is disproportionate and illogical, there is no precedent in the country for these disbursements. Taking into account the population involved by the Court itself and the tasks that must be executed, Cerro Matoso proposes a budget of 3,000 million pesos. In response the communities demanded 10,800 million, which is still excessive and out of all consideration”, states Luis Marulanda, Vice President of Corporate Affairs of Cerro Matoso.
“The San Jorge territory in the conflict-ridden province of Córdoba has registered the tenth highest number of murders of human rights defenders in Colombia between January 2016 and July 2018. According to figures from the Ombudsman’s Office, thirteen people have lost their lives while exercising their leadership duties. The majority of these cases have occurred in the Alto San Jorge region, which includes the municipalities of Ayapel, La Apartada, Montelíbano, Puerto Libertador and San José de Uré.
The most complex situation is experienced by the communities of the municipality of San José de Uré due to the territorial dispute between three illegal armed groups (‘Los Caparrapos’, the ‘Colombian Self-Defence Forces’ and another group that seems to be financed by the Cartel from Sinaloa, Mexico).
“We have around six leaders in the Province of Córdoba that have been threatened, one of them left the territory and others have protection measures, but there are other things to overcome beyond the measures provided by the protection scheme of the National Protection Unit.” (Andrés Chica Durango, Human Rights Defender.)
“With the Final Peace Agreement (between the Colombian Government and the FARC), the 18th Front of the FARC have left the territory and the regrouping of other armed groups has begun. This time they appear to be fighting for Uré, which we know as ‘the navel’ because from this key strategic point the groups have access to the Nudo del Paramillo, the Bajo Cauca of Antioquia, the Gulf of Urabá and the South of Bolívar. It is a municipality with very rich land for mining and the cultivation and processing of coca leaf”, states Andrés Chica, director of the Cordobexia Foundation and human rights defender.
Chica points out that another factor affecting the rural communities are the arrest warrants that have been issued by the National Police in the framework of Operation Agamemnon One and Agamemnon Two: “There are more than 100 arrest warrants for the capture of farmers, labourers and shopkeepers. For example, there is an accusation against a woman for being a communications liaison for these groups because she sells phone calls, but how could she refuse to sell phone calls to these people. People can no longer work in their territory.”
The territorial authorities are aware of this, but their actions have not alleviated the violence that reigns throughout the region. According to Juan José González, Secretary of the Interior and Citizen Participation of the Department of Córdoba, councils have been held to consider the security situation as well as working groups with the Mayor’s Office, and the municipality has even been visited by teams from the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ombudsman’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office.
“The situation of public order is quite delicate, which has generated forced displacements and armed confrontations. In the case of the urban area the authorities have complete control, but in the rural area it is more complicated”, González admits.
Many investigations, few prosecutions
Exercising leadership in a region historically targeted by guerrillas, paramilitaries and corruption is a huge task. The succession of deaths has affected all the municipalities, causing irreparable damage.
From 2007 to 2018, 29 social leaders have been murdered in Córdoba according to data from the non-governmental organizations Somos Defensores and Cordobexia. Twelve of the victims were community leaders, nine were leaders of civil society organizations (including representatives of victims of the conflict and people trying to reclaim their land) and eight were Indigenous leaders – five of the latter, leaders of the Zenú Indigenous Resistance of Alto San Jorge.
Cases per year
According to the information available, thirteen of the murders were committed by unknown assailants, eleven were committed by paramilitary groups, two were committed by the FARC and there is no information at all in three cases.
What are the results of the Office of the Prosecutor-General? In response to a right of petition lodged on the 28th of June, the office announced that some progress was made in eleven of the 29 reported crimes. Of these, two were resolved.
The first case is the president of the Community Action Board of the Casita Nueva neighborhood, in Montería, Otto Sierra Martínez, murdered in his office on February 26, 2011. The person responsible for the murder was a minor, who was sentenced to eight years in jail. The ruling is dated September 2013.
Otto Sierra Martínez
The other case corresponds to Mérida del Carmen Fuentes Hernández, Indigenous leader of the Cabildo Zenú El Porvenir La Fe in Montelíbano, murdered on the 5th of July 2011. According to the Prosecutor’s report, the case is filed with a conviction by confession dated the 20th of August 2015.
Mérida del Carmen Fuentes Hernández. News report in El Meridiano
Eight cases are in the investigation stage and the case of the leader of land reclamations Yolanda Izquierdo Berrío, murdered on 31st of January 2007 in the Mi Ranchito neighborhood of Montería, consists of several procedural phases.
Yolanda Izquierdo Berrío
The Fourth Prosecutor’s Office attached to the Specialized Directorate against Violations of Human Rights is conducting an investigation, which is in the preliminary stage, of five people apparently involved in the murder of the leader; and the Fourth Criminal Court of the Montería Circuit is advancing a trial against Xiomara Victoria Norato Guerra, who is reported to have participated in the crime and was captured on the 17th of May last year.
In the case of the murder of Yolanda Izquierdo, Teresa Gómez, a confidant of the Castaño Gil brothers, was sentenced to 40 years in prison (the Castaño Gil brothers founded the ‘United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia’, a national umbrella organization that was established in the 1990s to coordinate the activities of the paramilitary groups). The judgment at first instance was delivered on the 17th of January 2011 by the First Specialized Criminal Court of Decongestion of Cundinamarca and confirmed by the Superior Court of Cundinamarca on the 21st of June of that same year.
“This goes beyond the murders, what is being killed is the resistance, the organization and social mobilization, breaking the structure and cohesion of civil society: community-based actions, shelters and community councils.” (Andrés Chica Durango, Human Rights Defender.)
One of the most telling aspects is that with the classification of ‘unknown’ perpetrators of the murders, to a great extent, those responsible for the crimes against the leaders remain anonymous and the uncertainty remains as to who are the intellectual authors (and beneficiaries) behind their murders. And in the midst of this climate of anxiety and impunity, there is the struggle of the Indigenous people of the Zenú Resguardo of Alto San Jorge. They do not stop, even if they must live in a state of permanent mourning.
While the Wayúu in La Guajira eventually received considerable support nationally and internationally in their struggle to protect their territory and livelihoods (particularly following the forced displacement of the community of Tabaco in 2001, where a substantial media contingent was present to document the brutal attack by State and company ‘security’ forces), the Zenú have been almost entirely alone throughout their struggle, isolated and trapped by an all-encompassing campaign of violence and terror.
*All photographs and graphs have been taken from the original articles.
- José Navia, 1994, “Los Zenúes perdieron su memoria”, El Tiempo, 10 April 1994, https://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/MAM-98353
- Equipo Consejo de Redacción, 2018, “En una década, 48 indígenas asesinados y un silencio asustador”, Semana, Verdad Abierta, https://verdadabierta.com/especiales-v/2018/ddhh-posconflicto-colombiano/cordoba.html
- Daniel Edgar, 2015, “The development of coal mining operations at Cerrejon”, https://www.academia.edu/19304228/THE_DEVELOPMENT_OF_COAL_MINING_OPERATIONS_AT_CERREJON