Girish Gupta

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Campaign of terror in El Prado
May. 19, 2011

[IMAGE ERROR]Margot Durán Perez finally discovered the whereabouts of her husband and three sons’ bodies on Friday, nine years after right-wing paramilitaries held her at gunpoint inside her farmhouse and took them away.

“They told me, ‘If you scream you’re dead,’” Perez says, still nervous at the memory.

She never saw her boys again. Now, Perez lives with her six remaining daughters in a one-bedroom concrete house in the dusty streets of Populandia, a poor neighbourhood in the city of Valledupar, northern Colombia.

The murder of Mrs Perez’s family was part of a reign of terror by local paramilitaries that left at least 18 people dead over six months between 2001 and 2002 at their homes in El Prado, around an hour and a half south of Valledupar.

The El Prado region of Colombia contains large coal deposits that are being exploited by Prodeco, a division of Swiss commodities trader Glencore.

Prodeco consists of two open-cast pits – Calenturitas and La Jagua - that are about 200km south of the Caribbean coast town of Santa Marta.

The mines produced 10 million tonnes of coal last year but Glencore is planning to use some of the proceeds from its stockmarket listing in London next week [May 24] to expand Prodeco further, taking its production to 20 million tonnes a year by 2015. The expansion will cost of $2.6 billion and will turn Prodeco into one of the world’s largest coal mines.

But the El Prado region is tormented by the memories of what took place in May 2002. The community suffered a six-month campaign by paramilitaries in which at least 18 people were assassinated and many more displaced out of the area.

“That day our lives stopped,” says Perez’ 15-year-old daughter Aided, just six at the time. She sits on a bed in the garden with three of her sisters, in front of the corrugated iron and cardboard that make up the garden wall. The family all share one bedroom and the garden bed at night. They have little hope for the future. “I wanted to keep studying but I can’t,” she says of her plan to one day work as a nurse or doctor. “I’m not sure if one day it’ll be possible but now it’s certainly not.”

Details of what happened in El Prado are finally beginning to emerge thanks to the country’s Justice and Peace legislation.

Enacted in 2005, the law allows paramilitaries to confess their crimes in return for lenient sentences and other benefits. Many paramilitary members have taken up the offer, allowing their sentences to be capped at eight years.

One paramilitary who took up the offer has admitted ordering the killing of Perez’ family and is currently in prison in Valledupar. Alcides Mattos Tabaresis, also known as Samario, is the former head of security for the local Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary umbrella group. He admits in video testimony that it was he that ordered the killing of the family, following orders from his own boss.

He said by text message from his prison cell that he believed the killings he ordered were of enemies of the AUC, only to later discover that they were simple landowners. “There the land was rich in coal and people on that land got in the way of the coalmining companies, and therefore of the AUC,” he added.

Video testimonies from other members of the illegal armed groups reveal their aims. “We were sent there to pressure the guys to leave,” says one. “The idea was for people to flee so others could resell their land to multinationals.”

The murders in El Prado destroyed the community, leaving them to look for housing elsewhere the region and start up living under tarpaulin sheets as Mrs Perez did, like many families mourning loved ones. In the years since, they have asked many questions but are only just beginning to receive answers from authorities. For Mrs Perez, that means discovering where the bodies of her husband and three sons were dumped after their murder.

She has been told that they are to be exhumed this week, nine years to the day after they disappeared.

“Apparently the bodies are very far from our farm and five metres deep,” she says.




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© Girish Gupta