‘If you speak out you die’ say Colombian villagers fighting death squads and oil giants

The pain and the tears wont stop. I would give anything just to know what happened,' says Hector Abril, father of murdered environmental activist Daniel Abril, pictured with his grandson Daniel junior and daughter. Photograph: Michael Gillard
The pain and the tears wont stop. I would give anything just to know what happened,' says Hector Abril, father of murdered environmental activist Daniel Abril, pictured with his grandson Daniel junior and daughter. Photograph: Michael Gillard
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ELECTRIC blue butterflies danced around the basketball court in the Colombian village of Las Brisas as community leaders gathered for a May Day workshop on how to protect themselves from international oil companies and home grown death squads.

ELECTRIC blue butterflies danced around the basketball court in the Colombian village of Las Brisas as community leaders gathered for a May Day workshop on how to protect themselves from international oil companies and home grown death squads.

Fabian Laverde, a recently decorated human right defender, asked everyone to form a circle and place something in the middle that represented their struggle for survival.

“If you speak out you die,” whispered 46-year-old farmer Aristobulo Garcia, a father of three, as he threw dry soil onto the pile of mangoes, limes and yucca. “We must learn from the ants how to work together against outside threats,” he told the others.

Here, in the department of Casanare in the eastern foothills of the Andes, people are dying by the gun or machete for the curse of having huge oil and mineral deposits under their feet.

Since black gold was discovered three decades ago, over 2500 people have been ‘disappeared’ in Casanare. Overwhelmingly, the dead are victims of government security forces and their right wing paramilitary allies, according to CINEP, a respected church-funded research body documenting Colombia’s “sea of invisible victims” in this dirty war of five decades that has clamed over 220,000 lives and displaced 6 million more.

In 1996, Scotland on Sunday exposed the campaign of terror in the oil fields of Casanare being waged by the Army’s 16th Brigade, a 3000 strong unit created for and funded by a consortium of international oil companies led by BP.

The Brigade protected the multinationals from left wing guerrillas who kidnapped staff and bombed oil installations, but its soldiers were also conducting a counter-insurgency strategy of ‘cleansing’ the area of legitimate unarmed social movements who they regarded as sympathisers or rebel fronts.

20 years on, in the shadow of a ceasefire and demobilisation agreement announced last Thursday between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest guerrilla group, the killing of those standing up for their communities and the environment in Casanare continues with almost complete impunity.

State institutions and the courts are at best under-resourced and lacklustre, at worst complicit in covering up environmental crimes and political murder. Regulators who do their job too well are killed or sidelined.

Several farmers in the basketball circle chose rocks as symbols of their historic resistance to the excesses of the multinational presence, which has grown to now include Spanish, Canadian and Chinese oil companies.

But that resistance has come at too high a price, veteran peasant leader, Martin Ayala, reminded them. “Twenty years ago the Association of Peasant Farmers (ADUC) in Casanare was fighting for everything. It cost us the lives of six leaders just to get a road paved in the settlement of El Morro,” he said.

Ayala’s predecessor was killed in 1995 after leading a peaceful stoppage that paralysed BP’s operation in El Morro over the failure to provide jobs and meaningful social benefits. The two sicarios(assassins) ordered beer and cigarettes from Carlos Arregui’s shop at the front of the family home before gunning him down in front of his children. The police, unusually, were on hand minutes later but did not secure the beer bottles and cigarette butts for forensic testing.

Since 1996, the entire leadership of ADUC and the community leaders of El Morro have been assassinated or threatened; turning legitimate protest into an act of suicide or, at best, a game of Russian roulette.

Rubiel Vargas, an engineer, whose brother, Oswaldo, was assassinated in 2004, said: “The campaign of murdering community leaders in El Morro - the last was killed in 2014 - is organised. But I fear to say by whom.”

Ayala laid a branch of leaves on the growing pile of objects to symbolise the medicinal value of Casanare’s flora in protecting against the toxic effects of oil contamination.

Memories are long here that while re-branding itself as a green oil company in the UK, BP was secretly dumping toxic waste in unlined pits throughout Casanare, without any record of where.

A retired nurse placed a cup of water on the pile to symbolise the threat of contamination from new seismic explosions and oil spills caused by old, corroded pipelines. She too called for collective struggle “to not be uprooted from our land and put somewhere we don’t belong.”

The threat of displacement from farmland rendered infertile by oil development is a slow death for many. Self-sufficiency is replaced by city dwelling poverty.

THE workshop in Las Brisas marked the inauguration of a training school funded by UK charity War on Want’s Oil Justice campaign. It aims to teach farmers and community leaders the detective skills for uncovering evidence that might hold multinationals to account.

Across Colombia, death squads are targeting activists in areas marked for mineral, energy and industrial farming projects that are often backed by multinationals and international banks, says Peter Drury, Amnesty International’s lead researcher on Colombia for the last 20 years.

The Daniel Abril Fuentes School of environmental and social research is named after a 38-year-old cattle farmer and environmental activist gunned down on 13 November last year in Trinidad, a town in Casanare long dominated by paramilitaries.

Those who did for the young father are still at large. Abril was not politically aligned, his family say, but acted as a mediator between communities, oil companies and agribusinesses – rice and palm oil - during various work stoppages and disputes.

“He was always independent”, Hector Abril, his father, explained wearing a traditional Stetson and black armband. The police did not interview the family but posted a 30 million pesos (£7500) reward for information. “It is too little”, says Hector. “The pain and the tears won’t stop. I would give anything just to know what happened.”

Abril had to leave Casanare in 2007 after an attempt on his life with the apparent collusion of a now disbanded secret police unit. He fled to a neighbouring department with his young son, Daniel junior, only returning after three years to continue his defence of the environment.

“He told me he was going to have to leave again because of renewed death threats about what he was doing,” recalls Daniel junior, now fourteen but with a maturity beyond his years gained from attending many meetings by his father’s side.

“Two months before he was killed, three men claiming to be soldiers from the 16th Brigade told a neighbour that Dad should come in for a talk. He called the Brigade who at first denied it then said the three soldiers were theirs. We want the intellectual authors and those who did it brought to justice. There is CCTV footage. We just want the prosecutors to do their job.”

WHEN BP’s Deepwater Horizon well exploded in 2010, killing eleven workers and contaminating the Gulf of Mexico, the oil giant sold its Casanare assets the following year to help pay over $20bn in damages for the biggest environmental disaster in US history.

Today, there is almost no sign in Casanare of BP’s once ubiquitous green-washed Helios logo. It’s as if removing all trace of BP’s presence was a condition of the $1.75bn sale to Equion Energy, a joint venture between the Colombian state oil company and Canadian firm, Talisman, whose 49% share was last year bought by Repsol from Spain.

Equion has four oil production contracts, two of which are with UK based Emerald Energy, now part of a Chinese state-controlled firm.

The local community, however, are blocking plans to drill a new set of wells in El Morro, BP’s old nemesis. With the price of speaking out so high, demands for gasification of the eighteen villages is hard to write off as greed.

Equion says its has “excellent relations” in El Morro. Privately, however, it blames local political corruption for misappropriating past oil royalties and creating unfair expectations on oil companies to replace the state.

Tired of waiting for Colombian courts to deliver justice, communities affected by oil development in Casanare have been turning to the UK courts, where BP’s legacy is as much on trial.

Judgement is imminently expected in a case London lawyers Leigh Day have brought on behalf of farmers whose land they claim was affected by the construction of the BP-operated and part-owned Ocensa pipeline, which carries oil from Casanare to Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

The long trial was unexpected because in 2006 BP settled early with farmers affected by the same pipeline, some of who were living on an urban rubbish dump. Leigh Day took half the £3.2m settlement money in fees.

Since 2014, BP and Equion have been vigorously defending another claim by different UK lawyers. The oil companies are accused of complicity in the kidnap and torture by paramilitaries of Gilberto Torres, an oil union leader behind a stoppage at a key pumping station in Casanare.

BP and Equion strenuously deny any involvement. However, five paramilitaries claimed during their criminal trial in Colombia that Ocensa had paid them to kill the troublesome Torres. Furthermore, allegations of a general “liaison” between paramilitaries and BP’s security department are supported by internal oil company documents disclosed in the Torres claim.

THE Scotland on Sunday expose in 1996 and widespread political outcry led BP and later Equion to adopt new security arrangements. Funding for the 16thBrigade, for non-lethal assistance only, was from then on routed through the defence ministry with a requirement that soldiers and private security companies - Equion use G4S - receive periodic human rights training.

However, it has emerged that since 2002 the 16thBrigade has been executing innocent civilians and then manipulating dead bodies to look like guerrillas killed in combat so that the army could appear to be winning the war.

The so-called ‘false positives’ scandal involved the execution of at least 3000 innocent civilians by seven army brigades between 2002 and 2008. In Casanare, the 16th Brigade is under investigation for 133 suspected executions.

A short walk from the workshop in Las Brisas, locals have erected a monument to their dead at a crossroads called Coral de Piedra. Here, they say, is where the army helicopter would pick up the dumped bodies of farmers dressed as guerrilla fighters who soldiers had really slaughtered in their homes.

One double murder under investigation is that of 38 year-old Daniel Arciniegas and his 15-year-old son, Roque Julio, from a nearby village in the municipality of Aguazul.

Months after reporting having seen soldiers murder two young men, in March 2007, Roque Julio, the witness, and his father were killed and presented as guerrilla combatants themselves.

Before returning to a farewell lunch at the basketball court, the group of newly trained community detectives recited aloud the words on the banner hung at the crossroads: “Those that died for life cannot be called the dead. They are builders of a new society.”

Martin Ayala finished with a chant sadly all too often heard in these parts. It went: “For our dead. Not one minute of silence. Everything in the struggle.”

Onto the pile of objects in the basketball court, SoS placed a pen – a commitment to monitor the oil fields of terror in the era of a fragile peace.