How paramilitaries laid the foundation for Colombia’s largest hydroelectric dam

(Image: EPM)

Colombia’s largest hydroelectric dam, HidroItuango, has made international headlines — and for all the wrong reasons.

From its inception, the $4.5 billion-dollar dam built near Ituango, Antioquia, on the Cauca River by Medellin public utilities company EPM, was built with high expectations and even greater ambitions.

Set to supply 17% of Colombia’s energy needs, powerful politicians and businessmen branded Hidroituango as a direct solution to the country’s long struggle with high energy costs and prevalent energy shortages.

Beyond energy, Hidroituango was promoted by elites and members of the Colombian establishment, most notably former President Alvaro Uribe as a symbol of a new era of peace and prosperity in a country that has never known it.

But rather than provide solutions, the megaproject has only brought more challenges; more than a year after the dam was supposed to begin generating electricity, engineers are still very busy.

Delays caused by technical failures at the dam site and EPM’s mismanagement nearly bankrupted Medellin’s government until the insurance company stepped in. The communities who live above and below the dam must reckon with a severe environmental and humanitarian crisis that has destroyed their livelihoods and ability to live in their homeland.

Most worrisome, there are fears that the entire dam could collapse, uprooting the lives of over a hundred thousand people who live downstream. Such fears are well-founded.

In May of 2018, a technical failure at the dam site, led to catastrophic floods that displaced 25,000 people in communities downstream from the dam and causing outrage throughout Colombia. For more than a year, those communities were kept on red-alert and thousands of people were prevented from returning home.

All the while, those who protested about the dam, and whose greatest fears were confirmed by the disaster unleashed by Hidroituango’s corruption-ridden construction have faced significant threats and even assassinations.

Since construction began in 2011, five members of Rios Vivos, a human rights movement led by poor tenant farmers, have been killed by unknown armed men.


Two more social leaders murdered as EPM rushes to inaugurate hydroelectric dam


While difficult to investigate, experts and activists contend the violence has been purveyed by right-wing paramilitary groups who were not signatories to Colombia’s landmark peace deal with FARC—formerly Colombia’s largest left-wing guerrilla group.

The scale of the  displacement and the human suffering echoes an era that many in the country hoped to forget—its decades’ long conflict against extrajudicial armed groups that resulted in more than 265,000 deaths, more than 8 million displacements, and an estimated 120,000 missing persons.

The resemblance to the Colombian conflict is not an accident. In fact, its resemblance exposes Hidroituango’s origins as an elite-backed project supported by the conflict’s cruelest, and yet most ignored actors—right wing paramilitary groups, and opposed by guerrillas.

National context

The Colombian conflict officially began as an armed struggle in the 1960s between the government and left-wing guerrilla groups, most notably FARC, over a fundamental disagreement about economic and political power and who would wield it. At the time, Colombia struggled with one of the highest rates of income inequality and land distribution in Latin America.

Since the landmass that is now Colombia was colonized in the 1500s, it has been characterized by inequality. It was, and remains, a society controlled by a small elite that holds vast amounts of wealth and land at the expense of urban dwellers and poor tenant farmers known as “campesinos.”

Campesinos have long been the targets of political and economic violence, most notably during La Violencia, a 10-year long civil war between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party that led to some 200,000 people dead between 1948 and 1958.

Although La Violencia started as a partisan conflict, it was fundamentally a power struggle that challenged elites’ monopoly on economic and political decisions. A deal between the conservatives and liberal officially ended La Violencia in 1958, but the causes of the conflict persisted and ushered in a new conflict—a conflict that lingers today.

The failures to change the fundamental power structure reached a turning point in the early 1960s. During this period, wealthy landowners began using private militias initially created to protect their property during La Violencia.

The militias were used to illegally seize land and evict poor campesinos from their homes. In using these militias, wealthy landowners not only unleashed one of the world’s worst displacement crises, they also created the predecessors for right-wing paramilitary groups.

As rural migrants increasingly made their homes in Colombia’s growing slums, the government took little, if any, action to stem the flow of refugees. Why? A government built by and for landowning elites simply had no vested interest in protecting the landless poor.

Witnessing the government’s chosen indifference and the blatant injustice, a group of poor campesinos, many of whom had been displaced by the land grab, created their own armed citizen militias to protect their communities.

In 1964, these militias became the targets of a brutal military campaign that nearly destroyed them. One of these militias founded what became known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and thus began what is now known as “the world’s longest war.”

To keep its insurgency alive in the face of severe government suppression, FARC turned its gaze to rural areas that were traditionally abandoned and ignored by the state for support. There, FARC provided services that the government could not or would not provide; they built roads, punished lawbreakers, taxed business, set up schools, and even administered health services.

Simultaneously, they committed acts of terror against civilian populations to intimidate the government and advance their cause. They held journalists and Senators hostage. They assassinated mayors, judges, and governors. They bombed country clubs and military bases. They hijacked commercial fights and kidnapped over 25,000 people. They were, by all definitions, a terrorist group.

However, for poor campesinos, FARC was more than a terrorist group. It was an alternative—an alternative to a corrupt state allied with rich landowners who also victimized and terrorized them.

After 1982, the FARC turned to the drug trade to fund its activities, primarily by taxing narcos using routes passing through guerrilla territory.

The FARC’s reliance on drug trafficking became even bigger in the late 1990s when mainly the Norte del Valle cartel began promoting the domestic cultivation from coca that previously came from Peru.

Because of the guerrillas’ control over vast parts of the countryside, they were able to provide protection against the government and increase their revenue, making them a serious threat to the state and rural elites, but also a serious competitor to the narcos.

In response, rural elites, the security forces and drug lords invested heavily in private militias to fight the left-wing guerrilla groups. This fueled the rise of right-wing paramilitary groups who would forever alter the way in which the Colombian conflict was fought.

The rise of far-right paramilitary groups

First indications of this alliance came with the establishment of the CONVIVIR program. The creation of so-called CONVIVIR in 1994 allowed the private sector to invest in armed self-defense groups that helped the military fight the guerrillas.

The CONVIVIR became especially popular in Antioquia after former President Alvaro Uribe became governor in 1995.

On top of his anti-FARC crusade, Uribe was known for his pro-business stance. To maintain this reputation, Uribe spearheaded the process to acquire the license to establish what would become Hidroituango—a project located right in the middle of FARC territory.

Despite such high-profile support, the CONVIVIR program quickly grew out of hand. Militia groups that had been sanctioned by the government began to delve into illicit activities like drug trafficking and extortion. Seeing the growing public anger at the atrocities committed by the legalized militia groups, the government withdrew its public support by canceling the program in November of 1997.

By then, the damage was done as illegal paramilitary groups financed through the CONVIVIR program had already united under the banner of the United Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

The AUC transformed what had previously been loosely tied militias into a powerful military organization that would expel FARC from its territories and challenge its control of the drug trade.

By the early 2000s, the AUC was at the summit of their power, operating in 2/3 of Colombian territory, with over 16,000 members defending not just private interests, but attacking the FARC’s drug trafficking revenue.

The consequences of this all-out war were devastating.

The period between 1996 and 2005—the apogee of paramilitary activity in Colombia—accounts for the time-span with the most forced disappearances, with 47,844 people declared missing. To put this number into perspective, the National Center for Historical Memory estimates that 80,514 people disappeared in Colombia between 1958 and 2018.

Today, the UN estimates that right-wing paramilitary groups are responsible for 80% of all civilian casualties in the Colombian conflict. Their role, however, has consistently been underreported.

In no case are the stakes of this omission best illustrated than in the history of the Hidroituango dam—a project that exists not despite the Colombian conflict, but as a consequence of it.

Regional context

Although construction of Hidroituango officially began in 2011, the plan to build a dam in northeastern Antioquia goes back to the 1960s. Hidroituango was first conceptualized in 1969, by the nationally renowned engineer, Jose Tejada Saenz who saw potential in harnessing the dynamic energy exerted by the Cauca River.

Starting in the early 1980s, the government took steps towards making Tejada Saenz’s project a reality. But they faced one major obstacle—the dam’s location right in the middle of FARC country. A fact that was soon changed by the incursion of paramilitary groups into the region.

Located in northeastern Antioquia, Hidroituango stands at the crossroads between the Cauca River Basin and the Paramillo Massif, two major drug and arm trafficking corridors that until the 1990s were almost exclusively used by the FARC. Due to their remote geography in the middle of the Andes mountains, the small farming communities in the vicinity of what would become Hidroituango had long been abandoned and forgotten by the Colombian government.

The isolation and poverty of these communities thus made them ripe for armed group activity. It was not uncommon for young people to join FARC in search of a better life or for poor campesinos to plant coca to feed their families. This is not to say that poor campesinos were avid FARC supporters. Armed individuals issued orders and unarmed civilians obeyed. At times FARC protected them, other times they exploited them. It was complicated. Nuance, however, was not something the AUC was known for.

By 1997, FARC’s terrorism had long overshadowed its humble beginnings as a citizen militia founded to protect Colombia’s most vulnerable citizens. Their terrorism served as a justification for the AUC to eradicate FARC—even if it meant killing unarmed civilians.

Between 1996 and 2008, AUC  and it’s predecessor ACCU were behind 15 massacres against unarmed campesinos that displaced thousands and killed hundreds.

The most infamous was the 1997 El Aro massacre in which 15 locals were assassinated, 1,000 were displaced and the town was burned to the ground.

Although the harrowing stories of executions in the town plaza and the images of burned homes haunted the Colombian public, the massacre became especially infamous after the Supreme Court began investigating Uribe for this massacre and that of La Granja, also in Ituango, that took place a year before.

What most sheds light on the government’s cooperation, or at least complicity with paramilitary groups was the story of  Jesus Maria Valle, a respected human rights defender from Ituango, who reached out to government officials expressing his concerns about paramilitary presence in northeastern Antioquia after the La Granja massacre.

Valle was assassinated by members of a paramilitary group in February of 1998 while investigating claims that a helicopter belonging to Uribe’s governor’s office was flying overhead at the time of the massacre of El Aro.

A Medellin court forwarded an order to investigate Uribe’s alleged complicity in the massacres and the murder of Valle to the Supreme Court in 2013. Military officials who helped the paramilitaries have already been convicted.

The question is, what could the authorities and the paramilitaries have gained from the indiscriminate murder of unarmed civilians in a community that was only accessible on foot or on muleback?

The answer to both questions is Hidroituango.

A War for Hidroituango

On December 31, 1997, on his last day as governor, future president Alvaro Uribe, issued a decree establishing the Sociedad Promotora de la Hidroelectrica Pescadero SA to promote the project that would become Hidroituango.

It was a huge turnaround for a project that had lost momentum in the decade prior. EPM had considered the project too ambitious due to the geographical and security risks associated with it. It so happened to be that in 1997 the security risk, associated with the project virtually disappeared. And that security risk was the FARC.

To develop Hidroituango, political and economic elites who supported the dam needed to clear the area for development—something FARC would have never allowed. The wealth of natural resources in the region and its strategic importance to its drug trafficking activities was not something the insurgent group was willing to give up—at least, not without a fight. The government’s involvement as the primary proponent and later stakeholder of the megaproject added weight to FARC’s opposition to the project. After all, from FARC’s perspective making way for the dam was making a concession to the enemy.

On the government’s end, it was also of interest to have the land surrounding the future dam site be vacated in order to lower the prices of the land EPM would need to purchase to start construction on Hidroituango. It was a matter of doing it at the lowest economic and political cost possible.

Such evidence supports the theory that the government elected to carry out the removals through terror—something they could not do without breaking the law and losing international support. Rather than do it themselves, the government outsourced its dirty work to paramilitary groups who could deliberately terrorize civilians to displace them and therefore, weaken FARC.

This was the hypothesis of Patricia Hernandez, a prosecutor in the Justice and Peace Unit, who first started investigating this alliance in 2011. Hernandez suggested that the war in northeastern Antioquia was not just any war, it was a war for Hidroituango.

After Hernandez’s hypothesis triggered the Supreme Court order to investigate Uribe, she was moved to a new post in Caqueta, far away from her home in Antioquia.

Duque taking over

Prior to taking office, President Ivan Duque was one of the primary opponents of the 2016 peace deal as he considered it too lenient on former FARC members, as much as his political patron, Uribe.

The Duque administration’s choice to continue to minimize the violence of the paramilitaries and to stress the violence of FARC is in line with the rhetoric and policies used by his political patron, and for a reason.

By putting the weight of responsibility for the violence in Colombia on the FARC, the government is diverting attention away from the paramilitary atrocities carried out in Colombia and specifically in Ituango, allegedly in collusion with EPM and Uribe.

Duque has been one of Hidroituango’s most ardent supporters, stressing its completion as “necessary for Colombia.”

The president has gone so far as to call public outcry against the corruption ridden activities within the dam’s construction as a “witch hunt.”

Most symbolically, the valley that was flooded to construct Hidroituango, permanently covered unmarked graves where 700 victims of Colombia’s armed conflict are thought to have been buried, a literal erasure of the violence that led to the dam’s existence.

Despite the opposition of Duque and Uribe, Colombia’s peace process has progressed, and so has society, which dealt the ruling party a devastating blow in last year’s local elections and held the biggest anti-government protests in more than 40 years in November.

The demobilization of the FARC exposed the ongoing violence carried out by the State and paramilitaries.

It cannot be denied that FARC’s acts of violence in the form of kidnappings and bombings left a decisive imprint on the Colombian psyche-and deservedly so. Perhaps, they have had such an impact because they affected the country’s upper and middle classes in a visible and visceral way. But in doing so, they also served as a justification for a dirty war waged by paramilitaries that disproportionately affected the poor—privately.

While paramilitaries did not engage in bombings and kidnappings, they murdered, disappeared, and displaced far more people than all guerrilla groups combined ever did and they managed to get away with it for two reasons.

Firstly, unlike FARC, paramilitaries never had intentions to take over the Colombian government. In fact, in many cases, like the case of Hidroituango shows, they were the state. Secondly, and with greater implications, paramilitaries disproportionately targeted the poor, communities that have long been ignored and rendered voiceless in Colombian society.

However, if the protests continue in 2020 and manage to go a step further, they could also get at something even more profound. They could be a reckoning with a longstanding Colombian tradition—the tradition of elites using extrajudicial violence against the poor to maintain one of the most unequal social orders in the western hemisphere.

As of today, that reckoning has yet to come.

But the solution remains clear. In order to heal, Colombia must deal with its original sin–inequality. To start, it has to place the terrorism of paramilitaries and guerrilla groups on equal footing. Only then, can it become a true democracy.

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