Colombia: The Mysterious Death of Father José Reinel Restrepo

The killing of a priest who spoke out against an open-pit gold mine project by a Canadian company is spraying unrest in the community.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) is pouring into Colombia. In the last six months FDI was $7 billion—equivalent to 91.4 percent more than in the same period last year, according to new figures released by the Central Bank. Most of the money (64 percent) is going to oil and mining exploitation.

Despite the unprecedented possibilities of development and the promises of a better life for the communities located in coal, gold or copper areas or places with millions of barrels of oil and gas, the sudden arrival of new and powerful actors has generated unrest, distrust and fear.

This is the case of Marmato, a small village in the department of Caldas located on top of a “Montaña de Oro,” or Gold Mountain. Home of indigenous, Afro and mestizo artisanal miners for centuries, the recent arrival of the Canadian company Medoro Resources (it merged in July with Gran Colombia Gold) has prompted social conflict. Medoro has been buying land and mining titles for a plan to develop large-scale, open-pit gold projects to extract its estimated 9.8 million ounces of gold and 59 million ounces of silver.

For this, the company needs the town and its 1,200 people to relocate—something that a good part of the community opposes. However, the company is already building a new and fully equipped town a few miles away. Some in Marmato see it as a statement of the company taking the relocation for granted.

Among those who oppose relocation was Father José Reinel Restrepo, the 36-year-old pastor of Marmato’s Catholic parish. Father Reinel was an eloquent leader who visited Bogotá, together with municipal leaders, to speak out about the community unease and advocate against the displacement of the town.

A week later, early last month, Father Restrepo was killed. His body was found, without any identification, next to his motorcycle. He had been travelling between Guática and Belén de Umbría in the Colombian coffee region. As of today, the murderers have not been identified nor has a motive for Father Restrepo’s killing been determined, according to police.

On August 28, 2011, a video (with English subtitles) in which he spoke out against the Medoro mining plan, was placed on YouTube:

“If Medoro comes to me and tells me that I have to leave I will answer them respectfully: wait, then I have to die,” Restrepo says. “You will have to take me out with bullets or machetes.”

Gran Colombia Gold issued a statement saying, “we hope the authorities will fully investigate this crime and swiftly establish what took place. The company reiterates our complete rejection of any act of violence.”

On September 15, MiningWatch, a Canadian organization that keeps track of mining companies sent an open letter to the Canadian Embassy in Bogotá, expressing concern that Canadian mining companies “may well be aggravating or benefiting from violence.”

The killing of the priest and a cherished leader of this community is an early alert to the challenges Colombia will face with the mining boom. The sudden injection of millions of dollars and the arrival of massive operations in poor and unprepared provinces and towns should not result in disgrace. Also, the right of the local communities to express their opinions should be guarantee and the clash of ideas on what development really means for the people should not let be solved with violence.

For this the Colombian government (together with the Canadian, why not?) should prompt a serious investigation to clarify the motives behind Restrepo’s crime. The clarification of what happened should also be in the interest of Medoro (which recently graduated to the Toronto Stock Exchange), if the company is truly willing to build trust, protect an untarnished reputation and reach an agreement with the Marmato people, in which both benefit.

Lorenzo Morales is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a professor at the Center for Journalism Studies at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, and is also a journalist currently funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to focus on the Colombian mining industry.

Tags: Colombia

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