All that glitters is not gold in Northeast Antioquia

Saying Northeast Antioquia is to name some of the most emblematic municipalities in Colombia: Remedios and Segovia; which in their own way conjure up visions of their main source of wealth: gold.  This precious metal is the main base of the economy not only in both these municipalities but also in the small towns that surround them and where, according to the local inhabitants, roughly about 149 mine entrances are located.

Don Ramiro
Don Ramiro and Clara Ortega

It is intriguing how this precious metal has such a strong influence on the economy in Segovia. There are many local gold trading houses throughout the city’s streets and the main square is dominated by a gold statue of a woman, who supposedly symbolises Mother Earth, being gutted by a miner who is extracting the precious nuggets contained within her. “Is the statue also made of gold?” I ask naively.  Don Ramiro, a relentless member of the Peasant Farmers’ Association of the Cimitarra River Valley and the delegate of this organisation to the local region, responds emphatically, “No, and if it was someone would probably steal it”.

We continue chatting about this ancestral tradition in the region and Don Ramiro tells us that 500 years of gold exploitation has only managed to extract about 5% of the gold here. What they manage to get out of the ground is just what is closest to the surface.[1]  Meanwhile and with German punctuality, the multi-coloured jeep that we have been waiting for arrives and we head off in the direction of Cañaveral, the destination of our accompaniment.

There CAHUCOPANA[2] is organising a public hearing[3] so that the local inhabitants can explain their situations, the security problems and the lack of basic services that the populations neighbouring the Transitional Local Zones for Normalization (ZVTN acronym in Spanish) of Carrizal face. Present in the meeting is the Monitoring and Verification Mechanism (MM&V acronym in Spanish),[4] and Antonio García the political advisor in charge of human rights in the European Union Human Rights Delegation. The ZVTN is where ex-combatants from the FARC are initiating the de-arming phase, it is only an hour away from here.

The dark past

When Antonio García, the EU Political Advisor arrives, we begin our journey to the monument of the massacres committed by paramilitary groups. The massacres of Cañaveral and Altos de Manila[5] were carried out by the paramilitary forces of Fidel Castaño in 1983, and the total number of victims is still unknown due to the fact that they could only identify 20 of those killed (the others were mutilated and thrown in the river). Another massacre that occurred was that of 2001, in which paramilitary troops from the Bloque Metro of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, held hostage the inhabitants of a small town, obliging them to witness the assassination of 18 people. Due to this act, there was a mass displacement of those that survived.

By the way, do you know the limits of human barbarity?  With my heart tensed up, I ask myself how can someone dehumanise himself so much in order to act in such a brutal way and at the same time dehumanising the humanity of the victims, submitting them to infinite pain.  How much suffering can be harboured in the human soul? How did they gain the inner strength to return to their small town?


Suffering and inner strength often converge in this country that has become my adoptive home. Today Cañaveral is full of life. Once again in Colombia, dignity has confronted the savagery of those who use violence against the population. The members of CAHUCOPANA put us in context and remind us that at that moment in history the Colombian military and the paramilitary forces openly acted hand in hand in this region.[6] At the same time, the population was under a blockade that would not allow food or medical supplies into the area. The local population were being completely stigmatised: “if you had anti-malaria medicine on you it meant you were a guerrilla; you could only purchase 40,000 pesos’ worth of food, if you bought more it meant that you could feed a guerrilla, just the fact that you had a pair of rubber boots or a certain type of trousers was a sufficient motive to accuse you of being a guerrilla”. We asked ourselves what type of boots could they use, as heavy rain frequently floods the dirt tracks in which the local population travel.  Because of everything that had happened before, the local inhabitants became scared when the Colombian National Security Forces arrived to take a census of the population before the installation of the ZVTN in Carrizal. Confidence once broken needs time to re-build itself.

The raw reality


The public hearing begins. Since March, “men in black” wearing black balaclavas and carrying assault rifles and who identify themselves as paramilitaries, have been travelling between the small towns in the area and intimidating the local population. They have been asking after the social leaders who form part of the peasant farmer corporation CAHUCOPANA; entering into people’s homes to rob food, extorting and threatening people; they have even installed a road toll and burnt down a local shop, days after the owner had to displace herself from the town of Mina Nueva.[7] The inhabitants ask themselves how can these things happen so close to an area that is so militarised, where there is a security perimeter. Everyone who intervenes in the hearing comments on the fact that human rights violations are not something new in the area nor is the lack of state investment, nor are intimidations or the presence of illegal armed groups.


In this sense, the Regional Early Warning System, part of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, has been highlighting these facts since it published its Risk Report 2012.[8] This report analyses the presence of armed groups, the dynamics of how they affect the civilian population and what the Colombian government should do. The report warned that a scenario that has become reality is that with the exit of the FARC certain territories would be co-opted by other armed groups. Last year, still facing the absence of measures that would attempt to alleviate the situation, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office sent a second risk report based on the region.[9]

The community leaders that participated in the public hearing expressed their worries that in Cañaveral and the neighbouring small town, provoked by the internal conflict and displacement, the same old human rights violations keep on happening. At the same time there exist other dynamics of social control that are more characteristic of urban areas and therefore new in these types of rural areas. Characteristics such as introduction, offering and increasing the consumption of illicit drugs, have formed part of the strategy employed by neo-paramilitary groups in more populated neighbourhoods in urban areas, where they want to exert some kind of control. This control is not only economic and territorial but also social, and it attracts unemployed youngsters [10]that receive their first dose for free and little by little they become immersed in drug addiction. These youngsters are then given the role of selling the drug to maintain their habit, which also means that they become indebted to the local small-scale bosses of the drug trade who run what are known as “las ollas[11]. This scenario is ever too prevalent in the city of Barrancabermeja.[12]

Without drinking water or electricity


The local communities, who on the 16th of August last year sent their demands about social investment and security to the FARC as well as the Colombian government, thought that the fact Carrizal was one of the ZVTN would mean that things would change and there eventually would be more investment in education, health and local infrastructure. However, the statements of the local inhabitants show that the panorama has stayed the same, or that it could even be worse. Many of the small towns are still without running water and the education provided is still minimal. The only local health clinic in the area is in Carrizal and is exclusively for the use of the members of the ZVTN.

Survival becomes very difficult in these conditions, the access to local markets to sell produce is impossible, and the prices that are offered do not allow families to live decently.  The Colombian state institutions are not present, and when the governor of Antioquia was in the area recently, he didn’t visit these communities to listen to their worries. One of the participants’ states that “the EU representative gave us more attention that his own government; we asked him to take our case to the institutions”.

Organised dignity

They ask themselves in what way the Peace Agreement is benefiting them.  Everyone there identifies themselves with the complaints of neighbouring towns: the leader of Carrizal explains that they paying more attention to this town because of the presence of the MM&V. He insists “that the agreement was that all the small towns in the area would get electricity”. Those present also point out that this special treatment is actually having the effect of dividing these communities, which means that they lose their capacity to organise themselves and therefore claim what they deserve.


However, the pluralism of the communities present in the hearing and the unified manner of the demands made show that the bonds of solidarity are strong and that the breaking down of their social fabric is the only thing that hasn’t happened to them. “If the installation of the ZVTN is affecting the whole area; then the response has to be to the whole area”.

Antonio García expressed his admiration of the leaders in maintaining their will despite everything that they have lived through.  He expresses his worries on the issue of death threats and the presence of these illegal groups and expresses the will of the EU have closer relationships with these communities. The EU supports the first point of the Peace Agreement (Integral Rural Reform) and highlights the fact that the reintegration of ex-combatants is crucial for the success of the peace process.

The representative of the UN MM&V thanks the community for expressing their worries and he considers of great importance for his work and to be able to understand the impact that the Peace Agreement has on peasant farmer communities. He also apologised for the fact that they feel that they haven’t been listened to.  He reiterates that they do process reports and that they are trying to have closer relations with the leaders of the Community Action Council (JAC acronym in Spanish) in the area, that they know that these groups are there and they are going to take it to high levels.

Gold and contamination

To add to these problems, there is small-scale gold mining which in this area, and also emphasising its long history, is referred to as “ancestral”. However, this traditional form of mining is considered illegal by the Colombian state: They say we are carrying out illegal activity when we have been here for 400 years, meanwhile, the big mining companies that hold the titles here, don’t even know the area, they have never walked up these hills.

minero nordeste antioquia

The local miners are worried about the arrival of the multinational mining companies, because they have a greater extractive capacity, but they also pollute more as well as causing the displacement of the population, “the government is worried about the use of mercury, but not other forms of environmental pollution, nor human right violations…” were the words uttered by one of the participants.

Effectively, the issue of mining is complicated. The region of Remedios and Segovia is one of the most contaminated regions in the world due to the mercury used in the mining process, and recently it was discovered that there was mercury present in the maternal milk of local mothers.[13] The impact of mining activity doesn’t only affect the environment, but also the health of the local population.

However, small-scale mining is an activity that has been passed down from generation to generation, passing on knowledge from father to son, the best of inheritances that are widely related to the local culture. “The government by decree wants to change the way that we live here”. What can one do when what produces and sustains the local economy also degrades one’s health and surroundings?  The equilibrium is complicated.

A long and winding road to peace


The public hearing finishes with a sense of optimism and with applause due to the news that a new JAC has been formed” “We have a new neighbouring JAC, it is called Cañaveral-Chicamogué”. The organisational fabric continues to be woven, the peasant farmer resistance doesn’t cede one pace.  “The road is long and winding, but the peasant farmer communities have always believed in peace”.

That afternoon there was a tremendous rainstorm typical of the rainy season. And the following morning, another one which steps up a notch just when we are on the way back to Segovia. The vallenato song that sounds from the jeep seems to predict our current situation. “a big black cloud rises in the sky, and a storm comes closer….”.[14] However, as we came prepared we only feel relief that we have brought our “botas pantaneras“, a type of boot so stigmatised in Colombia that only wearing them could be sufficient for being accused of being a member of a guerrilla group.

Nathalie Bienfait

We cross a brook locally known as the “La Cianurada” (from the Spanish word for cyanide); in those two words, it becomes clear the level of toxicity of this small river that absorbs all the chemicals necessary to carry out the mining process. We go through some of the names of the places in the region: “Burnt Ranch”, “Dead Men’s Heights”… It doesn’t seem difficult to imagine the past. How else could the community name them? The face of violence is still present in the territory. Basta ya.[15] The implementation of the Peace Agreement in these territories is urgent and necessary. The community leaders and human rights defenders are doing their bit, but it won’t be possible if the Colombian government doesn’t dismantle the neo-paramilitary structures that still exist in these territories.

Clara Ortega y Nathalie Bienfait


[1] Universidad Nacional:  Revista Boletín Ciencias de la Tierra, Número 25, p. 111-120, 2009
[2] The Corporation for Humanitarian Action, Co-existence, and Peace in Northeast Antioquia – CAHUCOPANA
[3] Other civil institutions, such as the Mayor’s Offices and local officials from Remedios and Segovia as well as the Attorney General’s Office and the Regional Government Office of Antioquia had also been invited.
[4]The MM&V is formed by delegates from the government, from the FARC and from the UN who are present in the ZVTN and are beginning the phase of handing their weapons in and the transition to civilian life. The main objectives of the MM&V are to guarantee the effective handing over weapons as well as overseeing the security situation of these areas.
[5] Rutas del conflicto: Masacre de Cañaveral y Altos de Manila
[6] Verdad Abierta Masacre de Segovia, Antioquia (agosto 2002), 17th of October 2008
[7] Prensa Rural: Comunidad de Remedios en riesgo por acciones de paramilitares, 8th of May 2017
[8] Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office Informe de Riesgo N.º 002- 12 A.I, 3rd of April 2012
[9] Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office Informe de Riesgo 029-16, para los municipios de Remedios y Segovia, departamento de Antioquia
[11] From the Spanish for cooking pot it refers to a run-down area where drugs are sold or taken.
[12] Verdad Abierta: Cuando las oportunidades se “esfuman” en el puerto petrolero, 5th of September 2016
[13] El Espectador: Investigación detectó mercurio en leche materna por minería en Antioquia, 24th of May 2017
[14] And here is a tiny recommendation for music lovers: the most beautiful vallenato song that I have listened to all year.  La Creciente, El Binomio de Oro
[15]A play on words (when is enough?)  Report Basta Ya! Colombia: Memorias de Guerra y Dignidad, Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, 2013

Leave a Reply