When word had circulated that Marmato faced government-backed displacement for a resource project, villagers formed a committee to defend the town. They quickly gathered 500 supportive signatures.
Late last August, several members of the committee travelled to Bogota to register their views with government officials. Father Restrepo went with the delegation. The priest bluntly denounced the notion of moving the town and his church to make way for a foreign corporation.
A few days after returning to Marmato, Restrepo gave a television interview in which he denounced “Canadian imperialism” and said, “if they are going to drive me out of here, I would tell them they would have to expel me by way of bullets or machetes—but they can’t oblige me to leave.”
Four days later, Restrepo set out on his trip to visit family.
Neither his cash nor his motorcycle was stolen when Restrepo was ambushed on a lonely country road. But the priest was shot dead.
Nine months later, the police had not publicly revealed the results of their investigation. Villagers remain studiously neutral on the subject. But many say Restrepo may have died because of his political views. “I have no idea who killed our priest, and I’ve seen no evidence that incriminates anyone,” says Mario Tangarife, a miner opposed to Gran Colombia’s plans. “But it does seem a strange coincidence that he was killed just a week after our trip to Bogota, and just four days after his denunciation of the plan to move Marmato was filmed.”
The authorities have not made any suggestion that there is a connection between Gran Colombia and Restrepo’s death. But that does not prevent Father Javier Giraldo, a veteran analyst at the Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular, a Jesuit human rights centre in Bogota, from citing an old Colombian malady.
Giraldo points to a long-running and well-documented pattern in which Colombian business elites partner with armed groups to silence opponents and displace rural populations living atop natural resources. In a letter written shortly after Restrepo’s murder to Peter McKinley, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Giraldo argued that the security effort of foreign resource companies in Colombia “is only effective with the protection of enormous contingents of paramilitaries secretly co-opted by the armed forces and by the government security agencies.”
Officials at Gran Colombia describe Restrepo’s murder as a tragedy, and they bluntly deny any association with armed groups of any sort.
At Gran Colombia’s sprawling Marmato compound, centred on a renovated farmhouse protected by armed guards and dogs, company officials eagerly defend their project’s environmental and economic merits and describe their social development efforts, including a $2-million (U.S.) contribution for a community fund. Luca Altamura, the local director of sustainability for Gran Colombia, notes that procedures for the security team on site “and some security staff” were recently changed, “in order to make the community feel better.”
According to Gran Colombia’s proposal, which is still subject to a feasibility study, Marmato would be obliterated in order to make way for a vast open-pit mine that would allow the company maximum access to what it calls a “world-class” ore body, worth an estimated $10 billion (U.S.). In return for giving up their charmingly rustic though badly polluted town, and control of subterranean treasure that the villagers and their forebears have subsisted on for five centuries, Gran Colombia says the local people will get “a planned, modern community” in a valley below the mine, “with proper streets, sewage, utilities and clean water.” They will also be entitled to apply for jobs from Gran Colombia. But for all that, critics argue, an ore body that might sustain the village’s artisanal mining for centuries will be exhausted in just a few decades.
Rural displacement is an acutely sensitive issue throughout Colombia, where at least four million people have been forced from their homes in recent decades by warfare driven in part by murderous competition for land between the Colombian army, guerrillas and shadowy paramilitary forces that have often been proven to be associated with local business interests. And this illustrates a larger challenge for all mining and energy companies aiming to exploit Colombia’s riches. Despite burgeoning economic numbers, Colombia still has Latin America’s most inequitable distribution of wealth and social goods such as health care. Will a project help the half of the 46-million-strong population that is desperately poor? Or will it fall into the chasm of conflict caused by the country’s brutal disparities, which have become inseparable from the cocaine trade?