On Saturday 4 February, 55-year-old Edilberto Cantillo Mesa was murdered in his home town of El Copey, located in the Colombian blood coal region of Cesar. Mesa was a community leader and a member of a local organisation that fights for land restitution on behalf of farmers who have been violently driven from their property. PAX is shocked by his death. Mesa is the fourth victim in Cesar in recent months.
In the last few weeks, several El Copey residents have discovered graffiti on the walls of their houses with messages such as ‘social cleansing’ and ‘you’re next’, signed by neo-paramilitary group Aguilas Negras. These warnings and Mesa's murder follow a pattern of systematic threats by paramilitary groups to community leaders fighting for justice for victims of the armed conflict. Mesa lived in the same village as Deyis Carmona, president of the regional victim organisation, who has been threatened for years by paramilitaries.
Last September, PAX published a report on the assaults and death threats against more than 200 representatives and activists of civil society organisations in Cesar. The situation has deteriorated seriously since then. At the beginning of January, trade unionist and former miner Aldemar Parra García was killed.
Peace agreement now in danger
The mining region has seen a surge in paramilitary activity recently. This poses a significant threat to the implementation and the success of the peace agreement that President Santos signed last year with the guerrilla group FARC. Fact-finding, remedy for victims, and land restitution are important components of the agreement. The increasing violence means representatives of victim organisations no longer dare to speak out or demand truth and justice. Whoever speaks openly runs the risk of becoming the next victim.
The safety risks have led to Miguel Ricardo resigning as a board member of the victims’ umbrella organisation in Cesar. He was a driving force in the community, and his decision demonstrates precisely the aim of the paramilitaries and their financiers. Even more worrying is that the local police in Cesar have reported these cases of murder and threats as mere 'incidents'. Colonel Mauricio Bonilla, vice-commandant of Cesar's police force, said the recent killing of Cantillo was due to a neighbours’ brawl over cattle.
Urgent call to protect citizens in the mining region
At the end of January, on the initiative of PAX, 95 civil society organisations called on the Colombian government, local authorities and mining companies in Cesar to act urgently in suppressing paramilitary groups and protecting citizens in the mining region. Drummond and Prodeco/Glencore have condemned the murder of Aldemar García, but much more is necessary to quell the violence. First, the increased presence and activity of paramilitary groups in the region should be recognised since it endangers both citizens and the peace agreement. Additionally, mining companies and the government must take concrete steps to ensure remediation of grave human rights violations in the recent past.
Muted reaction by European energy companies
PAX has informed the European energy companies that deliver electricity generated from blood coal, including E.ON, Engie, Vattenfall and RWE, of the developments in Cesar. Only Vattenfall and RWE have reacted, although they failed to ask their coal suppliers publicly to distance themselves from the activities of paramilitary groups. None of the energy companies requested concrete steps from mining companies in seeking redress for the thousands of victims of the previous wave of paramilitary violence (1996-2006). Only Vattenfall has set itself apart by issuing a notice of intent to investigate thoroughly and in the short term the previous and current human rights violations in Cesar.
In depth: Stop blood coalNatural Resources, Conflict & Human Rights, Dealing with the Past, Colombia