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Since 1990, 35,000 Colombians have been killed in a horrific escalation of political violence. An average of ten political assassinations are reported every day. Colombia's state security forces and their paramilitary allies have been responsible for the vast majority of these killings. Many paramilitary death squads have been created by the Colombian military. Two million Colombians have been internally displaced by the violence and about 3,000 have "disappeared." The primary targets of state death squads are civilians including trade unionists, community leaders, political and social activists, human rights defenders and poor peasant farmers.

More trade unionists are killed in Colombia than in any other country. Of the 140 workers' representatives assassinated worldwide in 1999, 76 (54%) were Colombian. Three thousand Colombian unionists have been murdered since 1987, mainly by paramilitaries. On October 20, 1998, Jorge Luis Ortega Garcia, Vice-President of Colombia's Central Union of Workers (equivalent to the Canadian Labour Congress) was assassinated. Union representatives held the state responsible for the killing. The bloodbath has prompted trade unions from 26 countries to lodge a formal complaint against the Colombian government with the International Labour Organization (ILO). The unions have urged the U.N. body to establish a Commission of Inquiry.

While it slaughters workers and peasants, the Colombian state has extended open arms to foreign investment and emphasizes "its competitive labour force." Canadian corporations have responded enthusiastically by investing $5 billion in Colombia, mostly in the economic sectors where official repression is the greatestö-oil and gas, and telecommunications. This repression is in response to the labour movement's opposition to neo-liberal privatization programs.

In the largest Canadian investment in Colombia, Enbridge Inc. operates the country's most important oil pipeline (called OCENSA). Oil is Colombia's leading export. TransCanada Pipelines(TCPL)runs Colombia's two largest natural gas pipelines; the company has announced its intention to sell its interest in both. Canadian oil companies active in Colombia include Canadian Occidental, Alberta Energy, Talisman Energy, TecnoPetrol, Quadra Resources, Petrolex Energy, Vanguard Oil, Millennium Energy and Mera Petroleums. Bell Canada International is the country's leading cellular phone provider and Nortel Networks has installed a large proportion of Colombia's phone lines. Conquistador Mines, Sur American Gold, BMR Gold and Greystar Resources are involved in gold mining, while Quebecor controls Colombia's fourth largest printer. Bata owns one of Colombia's five largest shoe factories, Kruger Inc. controls one of its largest paper mills and McCains runs a potato processing plant.

Some Canadian corporations in Colombia are not just taking advantage of a repressive environment. There is evidence to indicate that Enbridge and TCPL have more direct connections to the repression. Until September 7, 2000, Enbridge operated the OCENSA pipeline jointly with TCPL. Both companies owned 17.5% each of the pipeline. On that date, TCPL announced that it had sold 10.3% of its share of OCENSA to Ecopetrol(the Colombian state oil company) and 7.2% to Enbridge. The rest of the OCENSA consortium consists of British Petroleum, Total and The Strategic Transaction Company.

According to Amnesty International, (AI Bulletin October 19/1998), the OCENSA consortium contracted Defence Systems Colombia (a British security firm) for security purposes until 1997. Amnesty states: "What is particularly alarming is that OCENSA/DSC has purchased military equipment for the Colombian army's 14th Brigade which has an atrocious record of human rights violations." At the time OCENSA/DSC bought the equipment in 1997 through Silver Shadow, a private Israeli security company, members of the 14th Brigade "were under investigation for complicity in a massacre of 15 unarmed civilians in the town of Segovia in April 1996 and for links with paramilitary organizations responsible for widespread human rights violations, including killings, Îdisappearances' and torture against the civilian population in the area of the Brigade's jurisdiction." Amnesty points out that it opposes the transfer of military equipment to units implicated in serious human rights violations "as it is reasonable to assume that such equipment could be used to commit further violations."

Amnesty also questions the use of an Israeli security company to procure military equipment for the 14th Brigade: "The relation with Israeli private security companies is potentially of concern given that in the past such companies have provided mercenaries, of Israeli and British and German nationality, to train paramilitary organizations operating under the control of the 14th Brigade. These same paramilitary organizations have been responsible for widespread atrocities against the civilian population."

Amnesty is further concerned that, according to information given to the U.K.-based newspaper, The Guardian, by a former OCENSA employee, OCENSA/DSC is carrying out a security strategy that "could indirectly or directly contribute to serious human rights violations against the civilian population." According to Amnesty: "What is disturbing is that OCENSA/DSC's security strategy reportedly relies heavily on paid informants whose purpose is to covertly gather Îintelligence information' on the activities of the local population in the communities through which the pipeline passes and to identify possible 'subversives' within those communities. What is even more disturbing is that this intelligence information is then reportedly passed by OCENSA to the Colombian military who, together with their paramilitary allies, have frequently targeted those considered subversive for extrajudicial execution and Îdisappearance'...The passing of intelligence information to the Colombian military may have contributed to subsequent human rights violations."

As Amnesty puts it, "The role of the Colombian security forces in the implementation of a counterinsurgency strategy characterized by the systematic violation of human rights imposes a special moral obligation on national and international companies to ensure that, however unwittingly, they should not condone or encourage such actions. This is particularly the case given that in Colombia human rights violations are frequently committed to secure or protect powerful economic interests."

From Amnesty International's account it appears that Enbridge, the leading Canadian investor in Colombia, and TCPL, (as part of the OCENSA consortium) have been linked to the Colombian government's war against its own people. Amnesty's statement is confirmed by the Colombia Support Network (CSNöbased in Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.) in the Spring 1999 issue of its journal, "Colombia Bulletin". According to this, the former OCENSA employee mentioned above, described his own role as being "the eyes of the state security forces." The journal adds that there was a secret agreement between OCENSA and the Colombian Defense Ministry under which the latter's counterinsurgency brigades would protect the pipeline. This agreement made the transfer of military equiment to the 14th Brigade "unavoidable," according to John O'Reilly, spokesman for British Petroleum.

Jake Epp, Senior Vice President of TransCanada Pipelines, has said that OCENSA is no longer using Defence Systems Colombia. He made the remark at a seminar for Colombian and Canadian government and business representatives held on June 1, 1999, in Toronto. In January 2000, the Colombian government awarded Epp the National Order of Merit, one of Colombia's highest official honours.

Also according to the Colombia Support Network, during 1997, Conquistador Mines' subsidiary, Corona Goldfields, expressed interest in exploiting a gold mine in the town of Simiti in the southern part of Bolivar State in northern Colombia. The south of Bolivar produces 42% of Colombian gold. Ownership of the mine was claimed by both the Higuera-Palacios family and 35,000 poor miners who had worked the mine for thirty years. Thirty thousand of the miners are affiliated with ASOGROMISBOL (Agromining Association of the South of Bolivar). About the same time that Corona indicated its interest, paramilitaries started appearing in Simiti, stating their intention to "recover" the area. During March 1997, these death squads killed 19 people in towns around Simiti. On April 25, paramilitaries entered the town of Rio Viejo and announced their intention to "cleanse" the area and "hand it over to multinational corporations because they will provide jobs and improve the region." {Source: Cecilia Zarate-Laun (CSN), "A Case Study of Globalization: A Chronology"}. The paramilitaries cut off the head of miner Juan Camacho and kicked it around like a soccer ball. They then placed the battered head on top of a long stick facing the mining zone to indicate the location of their next attack.

On July 20, death squads tortured and killed Luis Orlando Camacho, Vice-President of ASOGROMISBOL. On June 23, 1998, representatives of the miners' community told Colonel Reynaldo Rodriguez-Santos, the military commander of the area, that the presence of the paramilitaries coincided with that of multinationals in the region. They pointed out that along with Corona Goldfields, another foreign company, Archangel, was also present in the area. The miners stressed that this was a problem not only in Bolivar State but also in other gold producing areas such as Guainia, Vaupes and Choco. Col. Rodriguez responded that the miners were in league with guerrillas.

During 1998, massacres committed by death squads drove 10,000 people from the south of Bolivar, the largest displacement in Colombia that year. The expelled miners accuse multinational mining companies of funding the paramilitaries that removed them. The violence continued during 2000 with the army and navy bombing and strafing villages in Cantagallo municipality. Military and paramilitary units also carried out a joint operation in San Pablo and Simiti.

CSN's account was confirmed by Francisco Ramirez Cuellar, President of the Colombian Mine Workers Union (SINTRAMINERCOL) who visited Canada on a speaking tour in April-May 2000. According to Ramirez, Corona Goldfields is attempting to acquire property in the south of Bolivar through Minera San Lucas, a front company which Corona set up for this purpose. Ramirez explained that the death squad killings are aimed at displacing small miners to make way for foreign capital. "Our curse," he said, "is to possess enormous natural resources and be in a geopolitical location of major interest to multinational corporations." Ramirez added that along with Corona, Sur American Gold is also interested in the south of Bolivar. A third Canadian mining company, BMR Gold, owns a 7,000 hectare gold-silver mine in the south of Bolivar in an area known as the Serrania of San Lucas. The company claims that all work on the mine is suspended because "rebels have taken over the area."

Ramirez pointed out that since June 1998, paramilitaries have killed 259 people in the south of Bolivar, burnt down 689 homes and sacked 7 villages. The death squads operate with the open collaboration of the armed forces and police. Ramirez called for a halt to foreign investment in Colombia's mining sector until the labour rights and human rights of workers are respected.

In November 1999, Conquistador Mines signed an exploration agreement for Colombia with AngloGold South America. Anglogold is the world's largest gold producer and is 54% owned by Anglo American Corporation which dominates mining in South Africa. The mining industry in South Africa was the bedrock of apartheid. Under the agreement with Conquistador, AngloGold will fund exploration programs for up to 5 years in an effort to discover and develop "a major economic orebody."

Published in:

This Magazine, May/June 2001 (Map Version)
The Activist, July/August 2001
CCPA Monitor, December 2000/January 2001

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Asad Ismi