A Medellin court sentenced 16 businessmen behind a large palm oil project in western Colombia to prison for using paramilitary groups to illegally obtain territory for their businesses.
The agricultural mega project seeking to turn the lower Atrato river region into the most extensive area for cultivation of palm oil in Colombia was a sweeping criminal scheme orchestrated by the paramilitary apparatus, announced the Medellin judge earlier this year.
Traces of broader conspiracy are all over the case. Among the most resounding names from the paramilitary elite circles to drop during the trial were the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) founder Vicente Castaño, his step-sister Sor Teresa Gomez and ex-councilman Remberto Manuel Alvarez.
Moreover, the case which found its finale on October 30 involved a plethora of palm-cultivating companies such as Urapalma S.A., Pamlas de Curvarado SA, and Palmura SA in cooperation with the paramilitary warmongers.
7 to 10 years in prison
Sixteen entrepreneurs involved with the companies were given prison terms ranging from seven to ten years, on charges of conspiracy, forced displacement and invasion of areas of special ecological importance.
Besides prison sentences, the judge ordered various agencies, including the Colombian territorial agency Incoder to carry out works aimed at returning of the lands in the Jiguamiando and Curvarado regions, where the palm oil projects were developed, to their rightful owners – the Afro-Colombian communities who were displaced by the paramilitaries.
Additionally, the ruling compelled the convicts to pay compensations to every single family displaced in a forceful manner during the expansion of the project in the region.
The recent ruling is only the second sentence in the five-year court case. In July 2013, the same judge sentenced businessmen Luis Fernando Zea and Hector Duque to 150 months in prison on the same charges.
In both verdicts, the judiciary gave legal validity to the evidence presented by the Prosecutor’s Office. The testimony pointed to a broad relationship between the disappeared paramilitary commander Vicente Castaño and the palm-cultivating entrepreneurs. The alliance was forged to illegally seize the lands occupied by black communities in the basin of the lower Atrato with the purpose of developing of an immense agricultural project based on African palm tree.
First came the army
The origins of the criminal enterprise date back to February 1997, when the XVII Brigade of the Army, commanded by general Rito Alejo del Rio, carried out the so-called “Operation Genesis” by attacking the strongholds of the FARC‘s 57th Front in the lower Atrato region.
Although the official military operation lasted mere five days, according to the confessions delivered during the Justice and Peace process by demobilized paramilitary members, the National Army commanders stroke up a deal with the AUC forces in the region. The agreement allowed the paramilitaries to extend their influence over the area and displace more than 1,200 people.
Only year and a half later, after the paramilitaries consolidated their control over the region, Vicente Castaño invited various palm oil companies to invest in Choco. New companies began mushrooming in the the territories previously cleared up for them by the AUC forces.
How the plots were obtained by the AUC allies
As reported by various witnesses during the trial, the companies cooperated with the paramilitaries not only to prevent the local communities from returning to their lands with intimidation and threats, but also to pressurize the sales of land plots for derisory prices. Here is where people like Sor Teresa Gomez and Remberto Manuel Alvarez came into the picture, serving as intermediaries in the buy and sell process between the displaced and the companies.
For judges, similar actions “undoubtedly serve as contribution to the crime of forceful displacement.” Indeed, the mere fact that “you send to ‘negotiate’ a commission made up of paramilitaries is enough to intimidate the locals and urge them to sell their land,” noted in its sections sentence.
The campaign of appropriation of land required complex juridicial strategies designed to overcome legal obstacles forbidding business activity on ancestral territories belonging to afro-Colombian communities, such as the lower Atrato. According to the law 70 from 1993, these lands should not be subject to transferring, seizures or negotiations.
“Vicente Castaño, as the architect of the project, designated Javier Jose Daza Pretelt (sentenced to ten years of prison) to seek solutions to legal problems. Eventually, Pretelt, together with his lawyer Carlos Daniel Merlano Rodriguez mapped out two alternative juridicial strategies for legalization of the estates they had acquired. The first part of the plan was to make arrangements with black communities. The second element was forging of consent obviously understood as an illegal manipulation and not as a fact naturally generated.” wrote the judge in his justification.
The AUC’s agriculture project
The ruling confirmed allegations made by various non-governmental organizations working in the Choco region about the close links between the palm-growers and the paramilitaries in the region.
In his testimony, a former paramilitary commander Raul Emilio Hasbun reaffirmed that “the agricultural project was run by the AUC. Anybody who came into the area and bought a meter of land knew who was behind all this, who orchestrated the undertaking from the top.” The fact that a number of important paramilitary leaders played a role in the formation and had their assets in various palm-cultivating companies further validates the view that the two were not only linked but merged together.
The fact that the entrepreneurs did not “wield a weapon or exert direct pressure on the people of the lower Atrato region, does not mean that they didn’t partake in coercion, forced displacement and terror among the civilian population. Their involvement traced to these crimes, was enough to make them part of the criminal design.” concluded the judge.
That way, the palm growing companies based in the lower Atrato region were just an important piece in the apparatus of criminal nature. The combination of belligerent actions on behalf of the paramilitaries and the judicial strategies of the entrepreneurs gave the enterprise vast stretches of land for the development of agro-industrial projects, access to vast resources of the state order, and in consequence – great riches.