In Response to Murder of Priest in Colombia, Canadian Civil Society Calls for Stronger Protection of Human Rights Defenders

Canadian labour, faith, social justice, and solidarity organizations have sent a letter to the Canadian Embassy in Colombia expressing concern that Canadian mining companies may well be aggravating or benefiting from violence.

Civil society groups are troubled by recent news of the murder of Father José Reinel Restrepo, an outspoken advocate against the displacement of the urban centre of Marmato in the department of Caldas to make way for an open-pit gold mine project owned by Toronto-based Gran Colombia Gold.

Father Restrepo’s murder comes little more than two weeks after Prime Minister Harper celebrated the coming into effect of the Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement in Bogotá. Harper accused those who put human rights before free trade of “protectionism.” This tragedy, however, raises the question about who needs greater protection: Canadian corporations or human rights defenders in Colombia standing up for collective interests in their communities.

On September 2nd, the body of Father Restrepo was found shot dead near his motorcycle on a road between the municipality of Belén de Umbría, Departamento of Risaralda and the municipality of Viterbo, department of Caldas, south of the municipality of Marmato. The 36 year-old priest had served for two years in the parish church of Marmato. No perpetrators in this crime have yet been identified, nor has a motive for Father Restrepo’s killing been determined.

Shortly before he was killed, Father Restrepo gave declarations to the Colombian press, stating that the church is a defender of the poor, and that “this Canadian multinational company wants to take advantage of the population; they want to drive them out.”

“They have even gone so far as to want to relocate the parish church,” he said, “…they’ve come and asked me if I agree with the relocation of the town […] I’ve openly told them that I’m not in agreement with this.”

The municipality of Marmato has historically relied on small-scale mining activities. Indigenous artisanal mining has taken place for centuries in this area, with afro-colombians and more recently other miners adopting the same vocation.

Shortly after Restrepo’s body was found, 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 acts of violence.”

Canadian social organizations are asking that the Embassy to cooperate with investigations, to urge the company to do the same, and to provide stronger guarantees and mechanisms to hold companies to account, particularly in the context of Colombia’s armed conflict.

For more information, contact: 

Jennifer Moore, Latin America Program Coordinator, MiningWatch Canada, jen(@)miningwatch.ca, 613-569-3439