On September 1st, Father Jose Reynel Restrepo, the 36 year old pastor of the Catholic Church in the town of Marmato in Colombia, was assassinated. He was riding his motorcycle through the countryside on his way home after visiting his family when he was stopped and shot dead. A few days before, Fr. Restrepo had publicly condemned the mammoth Canadian/Colombian mining company “Gran Colombia Gold” for their plan to move his entire parish and town. The week before, he had traveled to Bogota to meet with government officials to prevent this injustice.
Gran Colombia Gold, along with the Colombia government, was going to force the entire town of Marmato to move from its ancient present location. Founded in 1540, Marmato has a population of 10,000 people. It is one of the historic gold-mining regions of the hemisphere. After the residents of Marmato were displaced, Gran Colombia Gold was going to dig a new open-pit gold mine in its place-and make a fortune. Canadian mining in Colombia is favored by the so-called “Free Trade Agreement” between Canada and Colombia, and like U.S.-Colombian multinational partnerships, wreaks havoc upon the poor rural communities.
For years, I have been following with my friends the terrible situation in Colombia. Alas, it’s not uncommon for activists-and even priests-to be assassinated for speaking out. This summer, scores of activists were killed in Colombia and the world looks the other way.
On September 12th, ten days after the murder of Father Restrepo, another priest, Fr. Gualberto Antonio Oviedo Arrieta, whose parish was in Capurgan’a (Choc’o), was murdered. A dedicated servant of the poor, he was killed by being cut to pieces with a machete. He is now the sixth Catholic priest to be killed in Colombia this year alone. The reason for his murder is not known, but most suspect it is because of his work defending the poor. The Bishops of Colombia have issued a statement expressing “sadness and concern” that six priests have been murdered this year. “[This is] a very worrying figure which shows the state of degradation in our society,” said Mgr. Juan Vincent Cordoba Villota, Auxilliary Bishop of Bucaramanga and General Secretary of the Colombian Episcopate.
As the world begins to run out of fossil fuels, the killing of anti-mining activists may be becoming a new global trend. Another young priest was assassinated a few months ago in a remote area of the Philippines, exactly like Fr. Restrepo—for speaking out against a mining company that was going to move his entire town.
In Marmato, residents objected to Gran Colombia Gold’s plan as soon as they heard about it. Of course, the large historic church and all their homes would be razed to the ground, but it would also end their livelihood. The plan would close down their small-scale artisan mining in the highland area. This small-scale mining has been going on there since the Spanish conquest and according to the Mayor, provides employment for more than 2,000 local miners, upon whose earnings the whole town depends. Years ago, the Colombian government agreed to protect the highlands of Marmato for this small-scale mining, while it developed mining projects in the nearby lowlands. Now the Colombian government has thrown out that agreement to allow the new open-pit mine for the Canadian/Colombian mining company.
Enter Father Jose. Last month, the mining company asked him to support the new open-pit mine and to move his parish and rectory to the newly fabricated town and offer Mass there. They thought that if the popular priest moved, the people would move, too. He refused. Then they announced that the diocese had sold his parish! So he went to Bogota to investigate these plans and to speak out against the Gran Colombia Gold Mine plan. A few days later, his dead body was found along a dirt road. The government and the media say he was mugged. 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.”
Knowing that he had the sympathy of the world’s peace and justice movements, Fr. Jose spoke out on You Tube! His interview was posted with English subtitles on August 28, 2011, four days before his assassination. I urge everyone to take a few minutes to listen to Holy Martyr Fr. Jose Reynel Restrepo talk about what is happening in Marmato:
In the video, we hear from the local miners speaking about their peaceful village, their lifelong struggle in the gold mines, and the U.S.-backed government which harasses them. Then smiling young Fr. Jose appears, speaking about the need to resist the mining company.
What a revelation to see and hear this young priest speak calmly and peacefully about his own death. He says he has a choice. He does not have to leave; he can just die. “They will have to kill me with bullets or machetes to get me out of there,” he says. The people must likewise give their lives to resist the mining company, he concludes with a smile. Four days later he was dead.
Thousands of dedicated organizers, activists, and churchworkers have been killed in Colombia in recent years, but what is unusual here is that we have a powerful You Tube video of Fr. Jose, just four deaths before his death. We can see and hear for ourselves what this martyr says.
With all the widespread media publicity about corrupt priests, bishops and cardinals, it’s also a revelation to see and hear an authentic, friendly young priest speak so eloquently on behalf of the poor. He seems to know he is going to be killed, because that’s what he talks about, and he smiles as he calmly explains that they will have to kill him. I, for one, see him as a true follower of the nonviolent Jesus.
“The church is a defender of the poor,” he says. “The church declares itself in defense of the poor, and the small scale miners of Marmato are at real risk of losing their jobs in this situation… The company doesn’t provide them with an alternative to their jobs because the company wants to use open-pit mining, displacing the population and exploiting this area in a short period of time.”
What can we do? My friends at the Colombia Support Network have launched an Urgent Action program about the situation in Marmato–here’s the specific link: http://colombiasupport.blogspot.com/2011/09/urgent-action-message-in-response-to.html. They suggest we send letter and emails to Colombian government officials demanding an investigation into the killing of Fr. Jose and the immediate halt of all mining plans to destroy Marmato.
I hope we can ponder the message of Fr. Jose, hear the cry of the poor, offer some solidarity with them, and continue to take a stand as best we can for justice and peace everywhere.