COLOMBIA ANALYSIS: Mirage and Reality in Southern Bolivar

5 May 2012
COLOMBIA ANALYSIS: Mirage and Reality in Southern Bolivar

by Isaias Rodriguez Arango, Holy Week delegation member 

 "Colombia is a social state under rule of law, organized in the form of a unitary, decentralized Republic, autonomous from its territorial subdivisions, democratic, participatory and pluralistic, founded on respect for human dignity and on the work and solidarity of the people who belong to it, and on the prevailing value of the general interest." --Title I, Article 1, Political Constitution of Colombia (1991) (unofficial translation).

Colombians increasingly see our 1991 Constitution as a mirage.  The illusion is evident when seen from areas as hard-hit by armed conflict as southern Bolívar province's San Lucas mountains—a mining area at the epicenter of a complex war that at times leaves it unclear who pulled the trigger.  The only thing always clear is that the peasant miner, farmer, or ordinary resident of the region generally is the one who ends up worse off.  But in spite of these odds, the locals continue to claim a willingness to pay the ultimate price to remain on these lands that and their Guamoco and Zenu ancestors have long inhabited. 

Small-scale gold mining provides a livelihood to hundreds of families in southern Bolivar.  But the region is now in the sights of AngloGold Ashanti, one of the world's most aggressive international mining companies. Communities therefore face threats from the state ranging from industrial regulation to paramilitary activity designed to force them off the land.

Without public or private aid, the small-scale miners cannot meet new environmental and safety standards supposedly aimed at sustainable exploitation.  At the same time, government agencies overlook deliberate violations by industry giants.  High prices of essential goods and services increase the likelihood of economic displacement.  Taken together, these practices expose a mining policy that intentionally excludes small-scale miners.

The national delegation hikes into the mining zone

Colombia's gold-mining industry also faces serious public safety problems.  The previous administration's "Democratic Security" policy did not achieve its purported aims.  Residents say that paramilitaries, guerrillas, Army, and police are all active in the region.  Threats against community leaders and spokespeople persist, as does impunity for crimes against them.

A look at the numbers

According to the regionally-based Comprehensive Peace Observatory (Observatorio de Paz Integral, OPI), seven paramilitary groups are active in the Middle Magdalena region.  Their primary criminal activities are drug trafficking and extortion.  Their larger aim is to maintain social, political, economic, and military control of the area.  In 2006, 6,000 paramilitary members demobilized in the Magdalena Medio region, but during that same year twenty-six new groups emerged. These criminal organizations have been accused of committing 1,051 targeted killings between 2006 and 2011.  In 2008, FARC guerrillas and the Águilas Negras paramilitary group in southern Bolivar formed an unusual alliance, complicating identification of the perpetrators of violent actions.

Contrasting with the OPI's findings, media references to the alleged demobilization of 31,000 AUC paramilitaries in 2006 tend to imply that the paramilitary structures have been eradicated.  But the real objective of demobilizations may have to gain the benefits of the Justice and Peace Law, including a maximum jail sentence of eight years for demobilized paramilitaries.  But in many cases clause 11.4 of the same law—which requires incorporation into civilian life and the cessation of all illegal activity in order to receive those benefits—went unenforced.

 Given these facts, we must not be lulled into believing that Southern Bolivar province and the Middle Magdalena region are no longer ravaged by internal conflict, or that the armed entities have abandoned these lands so coveted for their wealth of natural resources and minerals.