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The Latin American Revolution (Part 14): Opposition to Canadian Mining Companies Rising in Colombia

By Asad Ismi

Canadian companies operating in Colombia are more economically powerful than ever before: they partly own and run Colombia’s largest oil pipeline (Talisman), and they are its leading private oil producer (Pacific Rubiales) and its biggest gold mining company (Gran Colombia Gold). With such significant power, the ten Canadian corporations in Colombia’s oil and mining sectors examined in my report–Profiting from Repression: Canadian Investment in and Trade with Colombia –have become highly destructive and are wreaking social disaster in the country on a scale never previously inflicted by Canadian companies.

The report cites reliable sources that link ten Canadian companies in Colombia to the genocide of indigenous Colombians, to complicity in eight murders and one attempted murder, to other significant military/paramilitary repression, to large-scale displacement, and to environmental destruction on a massive scale, as well as to union-busting, strike-breaking, and worker exploitation.

These corporations are the four oil companies — Talisman, Gran Tierra, Pacific Rubiales, and Petrominerales — and the six mining companies — Gran Colombia Gold, Eco Oro Minerals, Cosigo Resources, B2Gold, Midasco Capital, and Antioquia Gold. Never before have Canadian companies in Colombia been denounced as so destructive. They are now open to criminal charges of genocide, murder, complicity in murder, environmental damage, displacement of indigenous populations, and the violation of labour rights.

My June article addressed the charges of Canadian corporate complicity in the genocide of native Colombians and in six murders. This leaves two murders and one attempted murder in which the Canadian mining company Gran Colombia Gold Corp. (formerly Medoro Resources) has been implicated. GCGC is the leading gold producer in Colombia. A key financier of both GCGC and the Canadian oil corporation Pacific Rubiales, Colombia’s biggest private oil producer, is Serafino Iacono, GCGC’s executive co-chairman. The well-connected Iacono is a supporter of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and has close business relations with other former Colombian government officials. The CEO and President of Gran Colombia is Maria Consuelo Araujo, a former Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Culture.

GCGC is the biggest underground gold and silver producer in Colombia, with six working underground mines. The company is also developing a large-scale, open-pit gold and silver mine in the town of Marmato. The Canada Pension Plan has $6 million (Canadian) invested in GCGC, as of March 2011. GCGC has been linked to two murders, one attempted murder, massive environmental destruction, and is planning the large-scale displacement of people. There is so much public opposition to GCGC’s development of an open-pit mine at Marmato that the town’s municipal council banned it on December 21, 2011.

GCGC is planning the displacement of 8,000 people from the town of Marmato — the entire population — in order to set up the open-pit mine. Close to 17% of this population is indigenous (and 56% is Afro-Colombian) and they have lived in Marmato for 474 years. The executive committee of the Regional Indigenous Council for Caldas (CRIDEC), the main indigenous group in Marmato, called the mine and proposed displacement “ethnocide.”

GCGC owns five operating underground mines known as Frontino, Providencia, El Silencio, Sandra K and Carla, which collectively are Colombia’s largest gold producer. These five mines (which shall be referred to as FPESC) lie between Segovia and Remedios districts in Antioquia department (which borders Caldas department and is also in northwest Colombia), 130 kilometres north of Medellin. Currently, FPESC is producing 65,000 ounces of gold per year.

The workers at the FPESC mines are members of the National Union of Mining and Energy Workers of Colombia (SINTRAMIENERGETICA). The union has linked Iacono to the attempted murder of one of its leaders. This is stated in a union news release dated June 5, 2010, and reproduced here:

“Criminal Attempt Against Union Leader

By Board of Directors, Segovia chapter, National Union of Mining and Energy Workers of Colombia (SINTRAMIENERGETICA)

“Segovia 05/06/10at 12:30p.m., of today June 05, 2010, municipality of Segovia at north-east side of Antioquia Province, Jhon Jairo Zapata Marulanda, SINTRAMIENERGETICA, Segovia Chapter’s union leader, was violently assaulted and wounded with three gun shots by paid assassins on motorbikes. Jhon Jairo Zapata Marulanda is the health secretary of the board of directors. He is 37 years old, 15 of which he worked for Frontino Gold Mines in the gold mining project. Our friend and workmate was picked up from the crime scene and transported to Segovia Hospital, where he was attended until he was stable. He was then transferred to Medellin via air ambulance for surgery.

“It is necessary to remember that recently Mr. Serafino Iacono, one of the main shareholders of Medoro Resources, referred to the mining labour force as ‘a cluster of paramilitaries and guerrilla rebels’ and said that he was going to take care of the case in conjunction with the government.

“Last week, Dario Rua, the union’s President, plus all the members of the board of directors, received death threats and were declared military objectives through an e-mail. Reasons given were their opposition to the sale of assets of Frontino Gold Mines (now closed), to Medoro Resources, and the time frame given for them to leave the gold rich area is two weeks. Medoro Resources has offered a paltry amount for the defunct company’s assets and its pension liabilities, taking into account that the company belongs to the active workers and pensioners, which is the reason given by the union to oppose the sale and transfer of company assets. Suspiciously, these negotiations have been endorsed by the Superintendant of Corporations and the Uribe Government.

“Mr. Marcos Gaviria Lujan and Mr. Cesar Augusto Duque and their families were displaced by death threats against their lives and those of their family members. They are president and vice-president, respectively, of the Frontino Gold Mines Retirees and Pensioners Association (Asjupenses) and are well known leaders in the struggle against the sale of company assets. They were moved by air to the city of Medellin under tight security measures.

“The SINTRAMIENERGETICA Board of Directors, the suppliers’ associations and Asjupences Board of Directors condemn these criminal and cowardly actions against our directors and hold the Superintendant of Corporations which is the liquidator, the assessment commission, and the multinational Medoro Resources responsible for these vile acts against the union leaders. At the same time, we make a renewed call to the national authorities so these attempts do not go unpunished, as well as to the Colombian nation so they give special attention to the security of the Segovia chapter’s union leaders who face the onslaught by these groups that work outside the law and are employed by foreign multinationals.”

The above charges against Medoro Resources (now Gran Colombia Gold Corp.) and Serafino Iacono are very serious and alarming: the attempted murder of a union leader, the displacement of two more such leaders, and threats to the lives of the entire union chapter board of directors are the responsibility of Iacono and Gran Colombia Gold, according to the union. The familiar pattern in Colombia is that, when a multinational company explores for or extracts a resource, paramilitaries appear to remove obstacles in its way, especially unionists and Indigenous and Afro-Colombians who object to the company’s activities. When, in addition to this deadly reality, a Canadian corporate executive declares the mining labour force to be “a cluster of paramilitaries and guerrilla rebels,” that is interpreted by the union as tantamount to imposing a death sentence on the miners.

By calling the miners “guerrillas,” Iacono is in effect asking the government to eliminate them by using its paramilitaries, as this is what the Colombian state has been doing for decades. The use of such inflammatory language is considered by the union to be an incitement to murder, in the Colombian context. Given Iacono’s close connection to the Colombian state, his apparently combative attitude is not surprising. As he says, according to the union news release, he “will take care of the case in conjunction with the Colombian government.”

From the above news release, it appears that Iacono will not tolerate any union opposition to his mining operations, and, according to the union, encourages the killing of unionists who engage in such opposition. Thus workers’ rights in the leading Canadian mining company in Colombia are seemingly not recognized. What exists is a paramilitary reign of terror apparently fostered by the company’s executive leadership.

On July 26, 2011, paramilitary assassins again attacked a SINTRAMIENERGETICA union leader, this time killing him with three bullets. Rafael Tobón Zea, a founding member of the Segovia branch of SINTRAMIENERGETICA, was murdered in this town on that day. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and unions worldwide condemned the killing. Tobón Zea was fired by Gran Colombia Gold when it took over Frontino Gold Mines, where he had worked for 15 years. The purchase of Frontino Gold Mines by GCGC, as seen in the SINTRAMIENERGETICA news release, is not accepted by the union or the pensioners. According to ITUC and Canada’s National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) “The mining company [Frontino] had been forced into liquidation and then illicitly handed over to transnational capital [meaning Gran Colombia Gold].”

As ITUC and NUPGE describe it, when he was killed, Tobón Zea “was working at a small mine where he was defending small and medium-sized mining operations, backed by SINTRAMIENERGÉTICA, as well as supporting workers and the local community at the Frontino mine in their fight to save the company from the clutches of transnational capital.” The U.S. Labour Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP) states that Tobón Zea “advocated for smaller and medium-sized mining operations to maintain independence from transnational companies.” According to the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM), “SINTRAMIENERGÉTICA had reported threats to its leaders that were believed to be tied to the contested takeover of Frontino by Medoro and Gran Colombia, and the sacking of all miners.”

The above accounts, especially those given by SINTRAMIENERGÉTICA, indicate that Rafael Tobón Zea was killed by paramilitaries because he was contesting the takeover of Frontino Mines by Gran Colombia Gold. His murder sent a grim message to all the workers at the mine, making it clear what the punishment would be for continuing to oppose the Frontino sale. Both the attempted murder and the successful one are clearly tied to Gran Colombia Gold.

So is the second murder, which was of José Reinel Restrepo, the parish priest of Marmato, who opposed Gran Colombia’s plans for an open-pit mine in the town and the company’s moves to displace its inhabitants. On September 2, 2011, his dead body was found near his motorcycle on which he had been traveling between Mistrató and Belén de Umbría.

His murder was condemned by the Regional Indigenous Council of the Department of Caldas (CRIDEC) and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (JARLC), both of which stated that “…this assassination is related with his work in defence of the mining municipality’s population. The week before his death, Father Restrepo had visited Bogotá to report the general unease in his community as a result of the proposed large-scale open-pit gold project, which would uproot the community and violate the rights of the Afro, indigenous, and mestizo population of Marmato.”


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, July-August 2012

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent and author of the book Profiting from Repression: Canadian Investment in and Trade with Colombia (2012–Third Edition). He is also author of the anthology The Latin American Revolution which can be ordered from the CCPA as well as of the radio documentary with the same title (2010) which has been aired on 40 radio stations in the U.S., Canada and Europe reaching about 33 million people.