A TV special by PBS details the threats community activists in Colombia face from armed groups, as they try to keep an industrial gold mining company from seizing their land.
"The War We Are Living," which airs November 1 and is part of a five-part series on women and war, raises new questions about the evolution of the Colombian conflict, and the extent to which the new generation of criminal organizations will continue to protect industrial business interests.
The show profiles a traditional gold mining town, La Toma, Cauca, populated primarily by Afro-Colombians. After the government grants a Colombian businessman a permit to begin mining exploration activity in the region, La Toma residents organize a campaign to prevent authorities from evicting them from their land.
Soon afterwards, the activists begin receiving threatening text messages and pamphlets from a group calling themselves Aguilas Negras – New Generation. One local leader is killed. A group of eight gold miners is massacred. Even though Cauca is host to all the major armed groups participating in the Colombian conflict – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN) and criminal gangs known as BACRIMs – no group steps forward to claim responsibility for the killings.
“There is so much violence kicking up around gold exploration, so many threats and killings by groups who call themselves different names and no one know who they are,” PBS producer Pamela Hogan told InSight Crime. “We filmed one community meeting for the show in which virtually every person present had received death threats.”
The anonymity of the BACRIMs is partly what makes their modus operandi so different from their criminal predecessors, paramilitary umbrella organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Like the AUC, BACRIMs such as the Aguilas Negras have consistently targeted land activists, local journalists, union leaders and intellectuals deemed “threats” to large-scale business interests. The AUC systematically displaced thousands of people from Colombia’s northern Uraba region, allowing palm oil and banana companies like Chiquita to move in and create huge monoculture plantations.
As the PBS program details, Colombia’s BACRIMs have continued to threaten and displace rural communities, in order to open up territory for development by multinational companies. But instead of palm oil, the new economic interest which BACRIMs seem keen to protect is gold mining.
And in contrast to the AUC, the current generation of armed groups is more selective about their targets, rather than committing large-scale massacres with 50 victims, or more. The BACRIMs are still known for killing large groups of people, but so far have not engaged in the kind of mass slaughter seen with the AUC.
And because groups like the Aguilas Negras operate in civilian clothing, lack a clear hierarchal leadership and have failed to consolidate their territory with the same effectiveness as the AUC, all too often it is difficult to determine which groups are behind the intimidation campaigns like the one seen in La Toma.
The community eventually won their case in Colombia's Constitutional Court, which ruled that, in accordance with the 1993 constitution, mining permits on land inhabited by Afro-Colombians or indigenous communities are only effective if local councils approve them. The ruling could provide a model for other cases in Colombia, and could lead to the annulment of up to 30 other mining permits in Colombia which involve indigenous or Afro-Colombian land.
If the La Toma mining project had been allowed to continue, this could have created a blueprint for armed groups interested in protecting the interests of Colombia's business elite. The displacement of rural communities like La Toma, in order to open up territory for industrial development, would create a new cycle of violence and poverty, the show's producer told InSight Crime.
"Displacement creates a domino effect," Hogan said. "As people told us, if La Toma residents have ended up evicted, so many would have moved to the cities and ended up in the slums. A whole way of life would have been destroyed. The show is a prism of these much larger issues."
To watch a preview of the PBS program, click here.