MAC: Mines and Communities

Colombian makes BHP plea for justice

Published by MAC on 2005-05-14

Colombian makes BHP plea for justice

The Age

May 14, 2005

Debora Barros has whispered the story many times: how she found the dismembered bodies of her aunties and cousins strewn across a village on her traditional land near Bahia Portete in Colombia.

Mrs Barros, an indigenous Wayuuan woman, was away overnight when paramilitaries dragged her relatives from their hammocks early in the morning of April 15 last year.

Speaking through an interpreter in Melbourne this week, Ms Barros said her matriarchal community could not forget the screams of terrified children after paramilitary henchmen thrust them into cars, doused them with petrol and set them alight.

"They also used a grenade to blow up my aunty's head and they played football with my cousin's head to scare us," Ms Barros said.

That night 12 Wayuu were killed, 20 went missing and more than 300 were displaced from land they had occupied for more than 500 years. So far no group has been found responsible for the massacre. Now, Ms Barros, furious at what she sees as the Colombian Government's failure to properly investigate the killings, is in Australia to tell her story and to try to find answers.

She has come, sponsored by the Colombian miners union, to speak to trade unionists and to appeal to BHP Billiton to help solve the mystery.

Colombia's parliamentary democracy presides over a nation ravaged for decades by conflict between the army, left-wing guerilla groups, and right-wing paramilitary groups that target the guerillas and those opposed to the cocaine drug lords of Medellin.

BHP is a joint owner of the Cerrejon coal mine in northern Colombia, which runs a railway line close to Bahia Portete, up to the consortium coastal depot at Porto Bolivar.

Ms Barros told trade union meetings in Melbourne and Sydney this week that more than 50,000 peasants and political activists were killed in Colombia each year.

Villagers were often driven from their traditional land, leaving it open to commercial exploitation.

Ms Barros says she has no evidence about who was behind the massacre. BHP and other mining companies have security contracts with the Colombian military, she says, but she does not seek to accuse or blame BHP for the events that occurred.

But she rejects the Colombian Government's theory, which blames the atrocity on drug runners, communist guerillas or paramilitary.

Ms Barros says her village never associated with drug runners. Villagers did not understand communist ideology but feared the brutality of the paramilitary.

"The Government says it saw us wash guerillas' uniforms," she says.

"That is rubbish, there are no guerillas near our land. Then they said it was a conflict between our families, which is untrue. They said it was about drugs, which we do not use."

Some villagers recognised people from the Colombian army with paramilitary on the day of the massacre, she said.

Australia's mining union president, Tony Maher, says the story raises questions about what BHP and the Colombian Government knew of the massacre. "We want to get to the bottom of this. We question Australian companies who contract some of the most notorious armies around the place," Mr Maher said.

BHP's sustainability and community relations manager, Ian Wood, said Cerrejon was owned but not operated by BHP.

BHP had no idea of what triggered the massacre, he said.

The issue had been raised with BHP at its London general meeting last November, where the company rejected suggestions of involvement as outrageous.

"When the massacre occurred, about 100 Wayuu fled to the port site for protection because they viewed Cerrejon as a friend, not an enemy," he said.

"We gave those people food and shelter and looked after them on behalf of the Government.

"We then helped to transport them home when it was safe. I don't think the Wayuu would have come to us if they were scared of Cerrejon or the military. It just doesn't stack up."

Mr Wood said BHP's site at Port Bolivar had ample room for expansion and did not require Wayuu land, which was 50 kilometres away by road.

The Colombian Government regarded the paramilitary and the guerillas, which both dealt in cocaine, as enemies. Any BHP employee found to have links with either group would be dismissed immediately, he said.

Mr Wood said soon after the massacre an article appeared in a Colombian newspaper, Il Tempo, that concluded that the pogrom was the result of a drug dispute. The report claimed a paramilitary leader had more than a tonne of cocaine confiscated by police after being informed on by local indigenous youths.

"So the paramilitary guy went in to sort out the indigenous gang who dobbed him in and slaughtered their families as an act of retribution," Mr Wood said.

He said Cerrejon had security guards but, like other miners, contracted the Colombian army to protect its staff from kidnapping.

"If Cerrejon is found to be supporting the paramilitary, the guerillas would attack the mine and vice versa. So we can't afford to support either side."

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