2017 saw a stepping up in the systematic murder of human rights defenders across Latin America for standing up to multinationals and local oligarchs. New Matilda’s Michael Gillard reports from Colombia’s oil fields, where death is a regular outcome for standing against the powerful.
The sombre guitar of Mauricio Jimenez cast an embracing shadow over the mausoleum of Daniel Abril Fuentes as the singer soulfully rendered two songs on the anniversary of his assassination.
Mi Viejo, a lament for a lost friend, and A Quien Enganas Abuelo, a tale of corrupt politicians promising bridges where there are no rivers, caressed the ears of mourners gathered around the fallen campaigner’s tomb in Trinidad, Casanare.
The 38-year-old is one of an alarming number of Latin American environmentalists who are being cut down like young trees in the struggle for land, justice and reparations from international energy companies and their backers in tailored suits and combat fatigues.
The killers of dangerous ideas are drawn from Colombian state security forces, their paramilitary allies, private security companies and freelance sicarios. The intellectual authors, however, are much harder to identify.
At the tomb, a priest with his hands raised gave a roll call of other local “martyrs”. He pleaded for peace in Colombia and an end to the killings by all armed actors that has seen at least 220,000 murders and more than six million displaced over the last 50 years of permanent but low intensity conflict.
The oration ended with the same uplifting chant that moments earlier had echoed on the march to the cemetery past disinterested locals kicking back with a Sunday beer.
Trinidad, after all, has a significant paramilitary presence, whose well-armed thugs conduct a dirty war with state backing to “cleanse” Casanare of unarmed social movements and individuals they regard as guerrilla fronts or sympathisers.
Damaris Fuentes, sister of the now silent campaigner, fronted the march dressed in white, while campesino leader, Martin Ayala, who had bravely picked up the bloodied baton of an assassinated predecessor, led the call and response.
Daniel Abril Fuentes!
Presente! Presente! Presente!
Damaris told the assembled crowd that her brother was “smiling in heaven.” Then she did something remarkable and asked God to forgive the gunmen who had killed her brother on 13 November 2015, not far from where his bereaved family now stood.
The big man’s final judgement may have to wait as, against all hope and a record of almost total impunity in Colombia, two men were arrested last June for the killing.
The suspects are Eliecer Anzueta Cero, a professional solider with the 16th Brigade, which was set up 25 years ago to protect national and international oil companies in Casanare. And Jhonnever Tumay Tuay, believed to be a member of a paramilitary group.
The motive for the assassination of Daniel, leader of the “Los Chocos” group of villages, so far remains unclear. His family say he was non-aligned politically but an effective juez de paz (mediator) between big business – oil, rice, cattle and palm oil – and affected communities.
In Colombia, that’s more than enough to be marked for death.
Perenco’s paramilitary problem
Perenco, an Anglo-French oil company, has a 14-year footprint in Casanare, where it faces allegations of environmental damage, broken community agreements, intimidation and a dark alliance with right-wing paramilitary death squads.
Milton Cardenas, 38, a veteran driller for the company, was in hiding when we met. The married father of two fears his defence of farmers from Tesoro de Bubuy in the municipality of Aguazul will eventually cost him his life.
As leader of the three villages around the La Gloria oil field, he’s been involved since 2009 in peaceful blockades to force Perenco to sign then comply with agreements that benefit his community.
As awareness of their rights under Colombian law grew, Cardenas described how community demands moved from labour issues to environmental compensation and social investment, not T-shirts, pens and baseball caps.
Perenco confirms that Santaferena, its private security contractor, takes photos of demonstrators but only for legal purposes. The oil firm says it puts “engagement” at the heart of its online corporate social responsibility policy and claims to have provided 1,000 desks and school kits, planted many trees and improved the eyesight of 400 people.
But the community saw through the ‘greenwash’ and brought matters to a head in 2014 when they blocked the entrance to La Gloria for one month with a permanent encampment.
It worked. Perenco agreed to a US$4m programme of more meaningful social and environmental investment. But when the community felt no change, the blockade returned, this time for three months.
German Ladino, a farmer, recalls police anti-riot tanks stationed near the protest. “Protecting the environment is not some romantic idea for us,” he said. “We need the state to protect us and investigate our complaints, not intimidate and investigate us for terrorism offences.”
Ladino is referring to a controversial complaint that Perenco made against various blockade leaders to the local anti-terrorism prosecutor, alleging extortion and illegal action.
The primary target was buffalo farmer Don Jaime Ortiz, whose farm backs onto La Gloria. He had driven his cattle onto the runway to prevent any Perenco planes or helicopters from circumventing the blockade. Since then, Don Jaime Ortiz said there have been two attempts on his life – in 2014 and 2016. The complaint against him is still unresolved.
Perenco’s strategy is dangerous in the tinderbox of Casanare’s dirty war, says British solicitor Sue Willman, who has brought legal actions against oil companies operating in Colombia. “They have a responsibility not to incite violence by state security forces and their paramilitary allies who appear to be behind the overwhelming majority of human rights atrocities,” she said.
This is particularly true when those same paramilitaries have already publicly claimed in legal proceedings to be Perenco’s hired guns.
In 2011, Nelson Vargas Gordillo, a former member of the United Self-Defence Forces of Casanare (AUC), claimed they provided paid protection and also received a monthly stipend in petrol and cash. “We have collaborated,” the paramilitary told a judge. “[Perenco] financed [the AUC]and had a voice and vote,” he added.
Members of the Centauros, the other paramilitary group ‘cleansing’ Casanare since the early 2000s, corroborated Gordillo’s claims in a later judicial hearing.
Perenco denies any collusion. They claimed that a prosecutor had found the allegations to be “false”, when in fact no finding has been made.
In 2015, Cardenas complained against the oil company for environmental and water contamination and pipeline corrosion. Then the threatening anonymous calls started, he says. The last was on 12 November 2015 just before the final hearing of his complaint. Cardenas said he passed the phone number to the 16thBrigade but it refused to act.
The next day Daniel Abril Fuentes was killed. He too was campaigning about Perenco’s environmental footprint. And, according to his family, soldiers from the Brigade had come looking for Daniel at his home shortly before his death. A neighbour alerted him and when Daniel checked, at first the brigade denied then admitted it was their soldiers. Days later he was dead. All of which could now be highly significant in light of the recent arrest of a 16th Brigade soldier.
The brigade is partly financed by oil companies operating in Casanare and separately under investigation for involvement in the so-called ‘false positives’ scandal, where over 100 innocent campesinos in Casanare were murdered and then dressed up as guerrillas.
After Daniel’s assassination the community of Tesoro de Bubuy decided to end its legal action leaving Cardenas to carry on alone. His case, however, has stalled in the local administrative court, an all too typical fate in a lacklustre and underfunded judicial system.
Cardenas, who grafted 18 years as a Perenco drilling contractor, says he is unable to get work. The oil company denies operating a blacklist or any involvement in threats and violence.
Shortly before his death, Daniel Abril Fuentes called for the sacking of the local environmental regulator, Corporinoquia , for a failure of effective oversight of Perenco.
But senior sources inside the regulator say the situation is more complex. In 2003, the government “stripped” Corporinoquia of its powers and introduced a global license making it easy for oil companies to get all their requirements through in one pass. “Now we hardly have oversight of oil companies. We have no power over environmental licences, no evaluative control and no power to fine,” one insider explained.
The regulator has a turbulent past in Casanare. In 1998, its director Carlos Vargas Suarez was shot dead during an ambush on his way to work in Yopal, the capital of Casanare. Only his driver survived.
Vargas Suarez had been a very effective regulator whose style when it came to dealing with big oil was very different to his predecessors, the insider explained.
A BP-led international consortium of oil companies was used to having an “open door” to the director. But with the arrival of Vargas Suarez in 1997, the oil giant found itself waiting outside his office and facing fines for environmental crimes, some so brazen they made a mockery of BP’s green Helios rebrand at the time.
Investigators working with Vargas Suarez found evidence of secretly dumped toxic waste pits; working without licences, failure to restore damaged land and a general disregard for the environment.
Soon after his assassination, BP put out a statement denying any involvement with the still unsolved crime. But the ‘open door’ policy returned.
Most power now rests with ANLA, who sources in Corporinoquia say has been slow to act on its recommendations to censure errant oil companies.
ANLA did eventually respond to a November 2013 oil spill affecting farms, water and cattle around La Gloria. The spill was put down to an old corroded pipe, which Perenco patched up. The oil company says it invests US$4m every year in a “strict integrity plan” for all its pipelines. However, the Corporinoquia insiders fear that the network of old corroding pipes is a time bomb for Casanare.
And still they rise
Just before the march from the main square in Trinidad to his father’s tomb, 15-year-old Daniel Abril Fuentes junior gave a moving speech.
The eyes of paramilitary spies held no fear for the young Colombian or those across the continent every day at risk of being cut down for standing up.
A report released by Amnesty International last month highlights what it calls “a disturbing trend where instead of standing up for human rights defenders many world leaders are putting them at increased risk through smear campaigns, the misuse of the criminal justice system or by falsely portraying them as opposed to national interests.”
Standing in the middle of the town square young Daniel repeated his dead father’s promise to those still living in the oil fields of terror. “From the mouth of the Pauto River and throughout the plains of Casanare I will continue to cry out, to demand and denounce the abuses… my clenched fist has sprouted thanks to my family and friends and those here with me… They thought they could shut me up. They were wrong. Here I am and here I will stay and here we will continue being a thorn in their sides.”