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Editorial 22

Written by May 30 2021 0

The latest, just-released EcoAnalytica/Guarumo national poll of voting-age Colombians shows that people here are overwhelmingly fed-up with the month-long series of strikes, road blockades, violence, arson attacks, attempted (and actual) murders and attacks on police, and economic devastation seemingly ignored or in some cases even promoted by some members of the “Comite del Paro” group.

The “Comite del Paro” leaders and supporters include certain left-wing politicians, some left-wing labor unions, some student groups and huge numbers of unemployed people – all motivated by the inevitable economic and social problems arising from 15 continuing months of the Covid-19 pandemic, rather than by a proposed tax-reform bill since withdrawn.

In total, 67% of those polled this month by EcoAnalytica/Guarumo said they are totally opposed to road blockades that have included violent attacks on drivers of trucks, buses, ambulances, oxygen-and-medical-supplies transports, police vehicles and private cars, resulting in untold numbers of deaths and suffering from delayed or cancelled deliveries of critical supplies at hospitals, clinics and distribution centers.

Simultaneously, hundreds of thousands of farm animals along with hundreds of thousands of tons of produce have perished because of the blockades, while hundreds of thousands of businesses likewise have shut their doors and laid-off millions of people because of the blockades, arson attacks and violent protests. Tax revenues that support Colombia's massive subsidies to the poor and working-class populations hit by economic devastation caused by Covid-19 also have plummeted during the strikes.

Another 56% of those polled said the strikes should stop NOW, even while 71% suspect that the national government and the “Comite del Paro” inevitably will sign some sort of deal that would end the month-long chaos and violence.

While 58% oppose the use of the Colombian Army to control the violence and vandalism, fully 67% oppose the dismantling of Colombia’s “ESMAD” riot police responsible for breaking-up violent demonstrations, according to the poll.

One-third of those polled suspect that foreign agents hostile to Colombia’s democracy (such as the narco-communist government of Venezuela) are partly to blame for promoting violence, while 25% see violent criminal groups involved and another 15% see local guerrilla infiltrations into otherwise peaceful protest marches.

Among those polled, youth unemployment is the most-cited reason for the protest marches, as unemployment has soared during the Covid-19 crisis – ironically exacerbated by the road blockades, vandalism, violent marches and burning of private and public buildings and vehicles during the protests.

No Candidate Stands Out for 2022 Elections

While the survey shows that Colombia President Ivan Duque has seen his popularity dip to just 29% during the recent rioting and strikes, one of the key promoters of the strikes and chaos – perennial left-wing demagogue and failed presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, now a Colombian senator – won only 20.8% of those polled who would vote for him in the 2022 presidential elections. In other words, 80% of Colombians DO NOT favor Petro and his demagogic populist/socialist agenda.

Meanwhile, Petro’s chief campaign spokesperson María Antonia Pardo last week provoked even more national disgust with the former guerrilla by claiming that violent protesters who blocked ambulance transport of a mother and her critically ill baby to a hospital in Bogota weren’t responsible for ensuring the baby’s death. The baby “would have died anyway” from prenatal complications, according to the public statement given by Petro’s campaign aide.

In contrast to the feeble support for Petro, fully 36% of those polled haven’t declared in favor of any presidential candidate so far, while those that won at least some favorability in the poll – former Medellin Mayors Sergio Fajardo and Federico Gutierrez – together nabbed a collective 18% preference among those polled.

Meanwhile, according to Colombian Defense Ministry statistics analyzing the riots and demonstrations since the start on April 28 to May 24, a total of 2,426 blockades had been erected on Colombian highways, accompanied by 1,897 protest marches.

Seventeen civilians have died during the protests and 1,062 have reported injuries, according to the Ministry. Meanwhile, two Colombian policemen have died at the hands of violent protesters, while 1,083 police have suffered injuries (or were nearly killed) by protester bullets, bombs, Molotov cocktails, bricks, rocks, pipes and other armaments, according to the Ministry.

Written by April 19 2021 0

Grupo Argos President Jorge Mario Velásquez and Grupo Nutresa President Carlos Ignacio Gallego Palacio on April 19 both issued extraordinary public statements contradicting Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero’s latest unproven assertions claiming that Medellin’s leading industrialists have been trying to manipulate the naming of the EPM general manager and supposedly rob EPM.

Hours later, Grupo Sura President Gonzalo Perez added his public voice to a growing chorus of business leaders, all denouncing Mayor Quintero's political fabrications.

Quintero repeated these baseless claims against Medellin's business sector in the April 17, 2021 edition of Semana magazine, in an interview with Semana editor Vicky Davila.

“Misinformation and lies affect trust, and without trust it is not possible to establish relationships and cooperate,” Nutresa President Gallego stated in reaction to Quintero’s unproven statements in the Semana interview.

Just as he did during his 2019 campaign for Mayor and subsequently in 2020 and 2021, Mayor Quintero has been issuing President-Trump-like conspiracy theories alleging that the local business sector has acted like a “deep state” in robbing, manipulating and mismanaging city-owned EPM.

Ironically, in an historic first, Mayor Quintero this month named no-less-than his fourth EPM general manager of EPM in just 16 months as Mayor -- having first hired and then fired (with no explanation) prior GM Álvaro Guillermo Rendón, in February 2021.

That unexplained firing subsequently led to Quintero’s ad-hoc appointment of EPM engineer Monica Ruiz Arbelaez as “acting GM” for just two months, followed by Quintero’s naming of Alejandro Calderón Chatet as “official” GM earlier this month – an appointment that lasted all of 10 days, until Calderón Chatet resigned following a public scandal over falsifying his resume.

Then last week (April 13), Quintero announced the naming of his fourth EPM GM in 16 months -- EPM board member Jorge Andrés Carrillo – which raised new questions about the legality of any current EPM board member resigning to become an EPM general manager, as certain Colombian laws seem to prohibit.

No Mayor in Medellin history has ever hired and fired four EPM general managers inside 16 months. But Quintero’s seemingly bizarre hiring-and-firing behavior comes on top of his even more troubling management of legal matters surrounding city-owned EPM, which generates more than 20% of Medellin’s annual revenues.

For example: Wall Street bond rater Fitch last year cut EPM’s bond rating when Quintero prompted EPM’s entire board of directors to resign en-masse, following Quintero’s failure to consult with them on his high-risk, multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against the Hidroituango hydroelectric project contractors– a lawsuit that some top legal experts contend amounts to EPM suing itself.

And now, Quintero is spreading new stories about how Argos, Nutresa and other major Medellin industrial companies -- the so-called Grupo Empresarial Antioqueño (GEA) group – supposedly plotted to pressure Quintero to name a “GEA-connected” official as EPM general manager.

In response, Argos Group President Jorge Mario Velásquez issued the following public statement, reproduced here (below) in full:

Grupo Argos Bulletin
Medellín, April 19, 2021

Dear [Argos employee] collaborators,

Faced with the statements made by the mayor of Medellín in different media in which he makes false allegations against Grupo Argos, I want to report the following:

On November 7, 2019, a meeting was held with the elected mayor of Medellín [Daniel Quintero] at the request of an invitation that businessman Fernando Corchuelo extended to his residence. We attended this meeting in the company of David Bojanini, former president of Grupo Sura and Carlos Ignacio Gallego, president of Grupo Nutresa.

In this space they talked about the city, the role of Proantioquia, the history of collaborative and virtuous construction of the university-company-state triad, the educational, health and cultural institutions of Medellín, among others.

Within the framework of this meeting, the mayor apologized for the treatment he had had towards businessmen during the electoral campaign and also asked us that since he had been absent from Medellín for a long time, he was grateful for us to share possible names of people who we consider could accompany him in his administration.

Subsequently, on December 12, 2019, we held a new meeting at the home of Mayor Quintero. David Bojanini, former president of Grupo Sura, Carlos Ignacio Gallego, president of Grupo Nutresa and myself attended this space.

We told him that in response to the request that he had made us to propose names for the EPM management, some ideas could be considered: the first, which embraced his campaign approach of wanting stable leaderships and with a long-term vision in the company, could be the to give continuity to the team led by [former EPM GM] Jorge Londoño de la Cuesta.

We also stated that a person such as Luis Fernando Rico, who had just been president of Isagen, would have all the managerial, technical and human capacities for this purpose.

Finally, we suggested that in any case, hiring a headhunting firm would be ideal for the purpose of finding the ideal candidate and with the required skills to lead [EPM,] the second largest company in the country.

With this clarity of the facts, and describing what really happened, I would like to categorically reject the false statements of the mayor, who affirms that these businessmen went there to name the management of Empresas Públicas de Medellín, insinuating that we have dark interests in it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our sole and genuine purpose was to help him, at the express request of Mayor Quintero himself.

As we have stated on several occasions, Grupo Argos does not have, nor has it had any participation in the governing bodies of EPM.

It is no secret to anyone that as entrepreneurs we have maintained a harmonious and respectful relationship with city administrations for decades, always ensuring that the symbiosis and collaborative public-private fabric are preserved, which has allowed Medellín to be the flagship city that it is today and an example where the different actors converse and unite in a transparent way around common purposes of building a better society.

I also reiterate that Grupo Argos, the company in which I am immensely proud to work and preside, has stood out for being an organization recognized worldwide for its evident contribution to the progress and economic and social development of the countries where we are present.

Our higher purpose transcends the generation of economic value and is based on a genuine commitment to simultaneously contribute to building better conditions for all stakeholders, including our fellow citizens.

In the particular case of Medellín, we are proud to have contributed more than COP$12 billion [US$3.3 million] to provide 100 Intensive Care Units to various hospitals in the city, among many other actions carried out during this pandemic, and that you are all aware-of.

Grupo Argos is an organization with 87 years of history. Since its birth in Medellín it has expanded to 17 countries on the continent; always generating decent and quality employment, accompanying the growth of communities, clients and suppliers, and participating in the solution of social problems, through which it has been linked with generous philanthropy actions to support the most vulnerable in the countries where it operates.

These actions have been carried out under the vision of social-conscious capitalism and with the conviction that modern business action balances economic benefit with the development and well-being of its collaborators, suppliers, clients, citizens and the environment in a harmonious and respectful way.

Finally, I would like to invite you [Mayor Quintero] to exercise inspiring, truthful and credible leadership, which is not built on the basis of grievances, and which avoid polarization so that our city can resume the path of growth.

Sincerely,
Jorge Mario Velásquez
President, Argos Group

Written by January 30 2021 0

The latest Invamer poll of voting-age residents here (see: https://www.scribd.com/document/492368867/Informe-INVAMER-Poll-140#from_embed\) finds that Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero’s favorability rating has plunged from 84% at the start of his term in 2020 to just 55% today, with unfavorability rising to 42%, from just 12% initially.

What’s more, 56% of Medellin residents now say that their situation is getting worse under Mayor Quintero, while only 34% see their situation improving, the poll shows.

According to Invamer, the January 2021 telephone/cell-phone survey of 1,200 voting-age residents nationally has a 95% confidence margin.

While Quintero had won admiration for some management initiatives during the initial stages of the Covid-19 crisis last year, subsequent economic and social problems arising from Covid-19 shutdowns, along with mishandling of EPM’s prior board of directors -- tied to his potentially catastrophic decision to sue the construction contractors at EPM’s “Hidroituango” hydroelectric project -- have damaged his public image.

The relatively weak favorability ranking for Quintero today contrasts sharply with that of his immediate predecessor, Federico Gutiérrez, whose favorability rankings during his four-year term hovered between 80% to 84% and unfavorability never rose above 18%, the Invamer poll shows.

One possible reason: Gutierrez, unlike Quintero, never stooped to attacking Medellin’s popular business sector with unproven, Trump-like allegations including baseless conspiracy theories claiming that Grupo Empresarial Antioqueño (GEA) essentially resembled a “deep state” supposedly looting city-owned EPM, Medellin’s single-biggest financial supporter.

No such wild allegations have been brought or proven in court -- and dozens of local and national business trade associations, civic groups and trade unions have since publicly denounced these Quintero claims as shameful and unfounded.

Other notable findings from the latest Invamer poll:

1. While Colombia President Ivan Duque has seen his popularity fall because of the economic and social fallout from the Covid-19 crisis, Duque has gained praise -- compared to his predecessors -- for rapid advancement in Colombia’s crucial highway construction projects, expanded access to health services and accelerated construction of subsidized housing for low-income populations, even in the face of the Covid crisis, the poll shows.

2. Antioquia Governor Anibal Gaviria has seen his favorability ranking improve from 58% at start of his term last year to 67% currently -- even despite facing new allegations of “corruption” tied to an obscure bridge-building contract 16 years ago, during Gaviria’s first term as Governor.

3. Perennial left-wing demagogue, former guerrilla and presidential pretender Senator Gustavo Petro continues to have a poor public image nationally, at 55% unfavorable versus 35% favorable.

4. Colombia’s Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez has a relatively weak 31% favorable ranking and 39% unfavorable.

5. Former Colombia Vice President German Vargas Lleras, another possible presidential contender, has a 50% unfavorable ranking and just 30% favorable nationally.

6. Left-wing presidential hopeful Senator Jorge Robledo has a 24% unfavorable ranking with just 21% favorable.

7. Centro Democratico posible presidential candidate Senator Paloma Valencia has a 29% unfavorable ranking and just 16% favorable.

8. Possible presidential candidate Senator Roy Barreras – a fiery critic of former President Alvaro Uribe -- has a 42% unfavorable ranking and only 12% favorable.

9. Possible Centro Democratico presidential candidate Rafael Nieto has a 10% favorable ranking and 10% unfavorable, with most having no opinion.

10. U.S. President Joe Biden enjoys a 60% favorable ranking among Colombian voters, with only 11% unfavorable.

11. Colombia’s business class has a 47% favorable ranking nationally, with 44% unfavorable.

12. Colombia’s mainstream news media currently has a 53% unfavorable ranking with 43% favorable. But during former President Alvaro Uribe’s second term – coincident with Uribe’s full-scale war against the narco-communist FARC terrorists -- the mainstream media enjoyed an 80% favorable ranking, reflecting the Colombian population’s absolute disgust with the FARC and its overwhelming approval for Uribe’s war on narco-terrorism.

13. The special “peace” court (JEP, Jurisdiction Especial para la Paz) that has generally granted immunity to FARC terrorists has a 50% unfavorability ranking, but 42% nevertheless are "favorable," willing to accept such immunity for the sake of a tenuous “peace.”

14. Colombia’s Supreme Court -- which has consistently ruled against former President Uribe in legal disputes and has been involved in numerous corruption scandals -- has a 65% unfavorable ranking, with 28% favorable.

15. Colombia’s Congress has a 78% unfavorable ranking, with 16% favorable.

16. Despite having signed a “peace” deal, the FARC still has an 85% unfavorable ranking, while the similar ELN narco-communist group has a 92% unfavorable ranking. Another 65% in the poll agree that the FARC is NOT complying with terms of the “peace” deal.

17. A notable 60% of Colombians continue to favor foreign investment and multinationals here, with only 37% unfavorable. Similarly, 60% favor free-trade agreements, while 35% oppose.

18. As for the idea of legalizing dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin in Colombia, 73% are against, with 25% in favor.

19. Asked about getting a Covid-19 vaccination whenever it becomes available here, 58% said they would, while 39% said no.

Written by December 07 2020 0

“Colombia El Pais de los Extremos” (Colombia the Nation of Extremes) is Ecuadorian diplomat-scholar Eduardo Durán-Cousín’s new, 783-pages-long history and analysis of more than 500 years of Colombia’s cultural, social, economic and political triumphs and tragedies.

For any foreigner sufficiently fluent in Spanish and trying to understand why Colombia in several key ways is more like -- but simultaneously also more un-like -- the United States than any other Latin American country, “Colombia El Pais de los Extremos” (La Carreta Editores, published in Medellin, September 2020) can be useful, as it’s the most recent scholarly work here -- widely reviewed in the Colombia mainstream media (and now, here, in Medellin Herald).

The book’s early chapters recount the European-biased observations of Spanish explorers, priests and conquerors about the existing and highly diverse aboriginal peoples here -- some of them relatively peaceful, pastoral, even submissive tribes, others (especially in Antioquia) more interested in trade and commerce, while still other tribes – and later-on, through their inter-mingled Spanish/native descendants -- practicing unimaginable savagery, conquests and even cannibalism.

The book’s most controversial (and racist) speculations about Colombia’s pre-and-post-Spanish-conquest-peoples include sections positing the notion that DNA and customs of the most savage tribes here later infected and subconsciously provoked incredibly bloody savagery by many current and past guerrillas, political armies and gangster groups here. One can only wonder what was in the pipe, smoking, when these paragraphs were written, given the horrific history of the entire human race (Nazis and Auschwitz, for example?)

But leaving aside dubious speculations about the origins of Colombian savagery, more important and more revealing is Durán-Cousín’s recounting of the central importance of the people of Medellin and Antioquia for dominating national (and even international) industry and commerce, even with the physical shifting or duplication of some local, foundational factories and some national administrative offices from Medellin to demographically bigger Bogota in recent decades.

As Durán-Cousín writes in the book’s first words about Antioquia, “the proverbial entrepreneurial spirt of Colombians, facilitated by the chronic absence of a strong central government, began in Antioquia and from there, by example and by migration of Antioquian people, irradiated throughout the country” -- a phenomenon especially apparent in the second half of the 20th Century.

Even more remarkably, in the latter part of the 19th Century, Medellin not only became the most important industrial city in Colombia, but also the most important manufacturing center in all of northern South America, Durán-Cousín points out, citing numerous sources.

Citing (for example) noted Colombian economic historian Salomon Kalmanovitz, Durán-Cousín recounts several crucial factors explaining why the “paisas” (the people of Antioquia) have dominated Colombian commerce and industry.

First came profitable gold mining here, then banking, then coffee exporting, then the rise of supporting industries (textiles, foundries, manufactures) --all crucially undergirded by the entrepreneurial, industrious customs of a particular sub-group of mainly Spanish descendants, many of them with Jewish cultural roots (although most forcibly converted to Catholicism during and after the mass expulsions and persecutions by the Spanish Inquisition starting 500 years ago and continuing for centuries afterward).

Notable also is that such historic discrimination and persecution continued in Colombia even right up until the early 19th Century in the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena -- distant from the relatively safe, remote mountains of Antioquia, where if one so desired, one’s past could be more easily hidden, ignored, downplayed, low-keyed or forgotten, which helped to open doors to new freedom and opportunity (as some of Colombia’s greatest novelists likewise have illustrated).

What’s more, a peculiar flavor of Catholicism --mainly practiced here in Antioquia-- is much more inclined to accept financial success as not inconsistent with spiritual salvation, Durán-Cousín notes.

As such, one can see parallels to the North American historical experience -- where countless industrious people escaping European persecutions and prejudices likewise found freedom, opportunity and prosperity in the New World.

However, Antioquia -- with few exceptions -- mostly avoided the poisonous, debilitating, dehumanizing and lethargy-inspiring crime of African slavery that has scarred, wrecked and ruined so much of an otherwise “freedom-loving” USA – even right up to today. A shameful history linked to a hypocritical kind of “Christian” prosperity where even slavery got trumped-up Biblical excuses and exemptions.

In contrast, the growth of a huge middle class of Antioquian entrepreneurs here – NOT employing slavery – came via the coffee boom of the 19th and 20th centuries, starting in Antioquia and expanding to neighboring departments.

This self-sufficient, entrepreneurial idiosyncrasy is at the core of what makes a “paisa,” Durán-Cousín notes – and this resonates among vast portions of the North American population as well.

But while one can find correlations between many paisas and many North Americans, contradictions also exist, although some of these have been overcome through time, the book shows.

For example: U.S.-Colombian relations were strained with the secession more than 100 years ago of the former Panama province from the nation of Colombia. But the book notes that Panamanians overwhelmingly favored that separation, for both economic and political reasons, starting with the historical negligence of Colombia’s central government toward outlying provinces.

But ever since the Colombia Congress in 1923 ratified the Urrutia-Thompson Treaty that required the U.S. government to compensate Colombia for the Panamanian secession, Colombia has maintained particularly strong political, economic and military-aid ties with the U.S., much to the consternation of pro-Soviet, pro-communist and other left-wing politicians.

However, despite these cold-war and post-cold-war era political conflicts, as well as the “La Violencia” civil war of 1948 to 1958 and the subsequent FARC, ELN and M-19 guerrilla terrorism, Colombia’s other, prior, centuries-long political struggles – triggering frequent, bloody civil wars --weren’t fought along class lines (peasant versus landlord, worker versus capitalist), Durán-Cousín notes.

Rather, these wars were mainly between the “elites-dominated” Conservative and Liberal Parties -- conflicts that came to an end following the brief military government of General Rojas Pinilla at the end of the “La Violencia” conflict of the 1950s, the book notes.

Then, in 1991, Colombia enacted a new, modernized, liberal Constitution, which triggered the decline of the old Liberal and Conservative Parties and gave rise to a multiplicity of new parties of various ideological stripes and of “charismatic” leaders.

In some respects, today’s non-violent political battles in Colombia are similar to the non-violent political battles between Democrat and Republican Parties in the U.S., at least following the end of the U.S. Civil War of 1860-1865.

Unfortunately, like so many other Latin American historic and sociological treatises, Durán-Cousín’s “Colombia El Pais de los Extremos” book falls into a familiar trap of lamenting the absence here of a strong, unified, class-based social-democratic “left” party that would compete for votes with a more traditional, capitalist-oriented conservative party.

Supposedly, a strong social-democrat party here arguably would have provided an alternative to the violent communist guerrilla movements, which (falsely) were claimed to have arisen because of “oppression” and “lack of democracy” in Colombia. In fact, Colombia’s democracy is more than 200 years old, and left-wing currents (and several coalition governments) have long been a part of the Liberal Party, although centrist and rightist factions frequently dominated among the Liberals. Social-democrat factions also have existed in the Conservative Party and in its various coalition governments, the book shows.

On the other hand, Durán-Cousín correctly observes that Colombia’s relatively violent political history has mainly been a competition between some well-off elites, supported by the majority of poorer populations, with the poor used as cannon-fodder in the many civil wars.

Yet history shows that the same cynicism is just as true of the FARC and other communist, extreme leftist, narco-communist and paramilitary gangsters here, all of whom have sought to overthrow or manipulate the existing capitalist elites and replace them or sabotage them with crypto-capitalists -- communist and narco-gangster dictatorial power -- rather than bring about any real “social justice.”

In his proposed recipes for reform, Durán-Cousín also unfortunately repeats the old canard that what Colombia really needs is “land reform” that supposedly would end the injustice of relatively few big landholders “misusing” their landholdings and preventing poor peasants from getting a bigger piece of the land pie.

First problem with this argument: agricultural producers need profitable products from land, not just bigger areas of land.

Second problem: Splitting up big haciendas into smaller parcels -- supposedly to benefit hundreds of thousands or millions of mainly rural residents – wouldn’t automatically yield profits from that land -- and may do the opposite, by imposing smallholder inefficiencies.

Which is why coca and cocaine have conquered vast acreages among Colombia’s small farmers (not the big haciendas), as “white powder” is far more profitable than “land reform.” And which explains why thousands of FARC militants since have abandoned the 2015 “peace treaty” and gone back to cocaine trafficking, murder and extorsion -- as these are more profitable than conventional subsistence farming or the fantastical idea of “land reform.”

Correctly, Durán-Cousín laments the historic fragmentation of Colombia -- caused by weak central government, a mountainous, isolated terrain and very poor roads compared to its neighbors -- which helps explain the historic rise of warlord guerrilla armies and violent political competitions.

But he gets the solution wrong, by proposing the elevation of a stronger, unified left-wing party to counter the power of the existing conservative “elites” and thus supposedly expanding social justice, peacefully.

Ironically, the one Colombian President who did more than all others in the entire history of the country to boost social progress, economic progress, reduce isolation and diminish narco-terrorist violence wasn’t a “left” or “right” President.

Just the opposite.

Instead, this uniting President was Alvaro Uribe Velez, a thoroughly centrist politician -- a rather steelier version of incoming centrist U.S. President Joe Biden -- who won the hearts and minds of a huge majority of all Colombian social classes and regions, twice.

The only Colombian President in history who spent his weekends during his two terms traveling to every small town and village in every corner of the country, listening to ordinary people (not elites), promoting and elevating Colombia as one nation, one people, one democracy, seeking greater economic, political and social progress. And suffering numerous assassination attempts in the process.

The only President who virtually destroyed the FARC militarily and potentially paved the way for a future “peace” agreement that some day might actually achieve real, laudable goals, rather than the current “peace” mess that hasn’t stopped guerrilla violence, corruption or massive narco-trafficking.

Likewise, the only President who without fear welcomes face-to-face debate with Colombia’s leftist extremists -- including angry students and demagogic politicians.

The one politician who put country above class or ideology, at the risk of his own life. But also the one that Durán-Cousín terms in the book as a “clientelist” politician, like something in the mode of a “caudillo.”

Erroneous again.

Uribe -- unlike typical banana-republic strongmen, or hate-spewing, demagogic, reactionary hucksters like outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump – is a through-and-through democrat, unafraid of losing any election and unflinching in the face of continuing persecutions by corrupt judges, ideological extremists and jealous political rivals of various stripes.

Which is exactly what Colombia has always needed -- not “land reform,” or demagogues, or a “stronger left-wing party” as Durán-Cousín suggests. Instead, what Colombia needs is more centrists, more moderates, more unifiers, more reformers, more investors, more middle-class people, more kind, decent and ethical people, more educated people, more entrepreneurial people and more democrats (with a small “d”).

Written by December 01 2020 0

Editor's Note: The annual Colombia Gold Symposium (CGS) conference here in Medellin -- organized by CGS director, veteran mining journalist and British expat Paul Harris -- brings together leading international and domestic mining companies, consultants and government regulators, to explore the challenges and opportunities of gold mining here in Antioquia as well as elsewhere in Colombia and in neighboring countries.

Below we reprint Paul Harris' outstanding recap of the history of the giant Buritica, Antioquia gold-mining project, recently sold by Canadian mining developer Continental Resources to Chinese mining giant Zijin Resources.  This article is not only factual but also keenly observational about the profound risks and rewards of undertaking large-scale gold and copper mining in Antioquia and Colombia.  Harris's opinions are of course his own and not necessarily those of Medellin Herald. Enjoy!


Buritica: A Triumph Against the Odds
from: Colombia Gold Symposium (CGS) December2020 newsletter
by Paul Harris
(for subscription information, see: https://colombiagold.co/ )

On Friday 23 October 2020, Colombian President Ivan Duque helped inaugurate Zijin Continental Gold’s 282,000 ounces/year Buritica gold mine in Antioquia, Colombia.

A day of positivity and hope was more subdued than it perhaps should have been given Covid-19 social distancing measures, but was perhaps fitting given the abnormal trials and tribulations the project overcame to become Colombia’s biggest producing underground gold mine.

Buritica today is an example of modernity and the power of investment with two, 5x5-meters tunnels driven into the orebody which is being exploited by a mechanized mining fleet, a far cry from the narrow tunnel into which one walked, doubled over into the Centena mine scratched out of the rock using decades-old methods where the Buritica story began.

Finding an economic deposit and building a mine is a challenging task at the best of times, but Buritica took a superhuman effort to overcome the extraordinary challenges of operating in Colombia.

Ten years ago, reaching the Centena mine meant a thirty-minute mule ride down the precipitous slopes, a journey which almost claimed one worker in the early days whose mule slipped and fell sending him crashing down the slope only to be stopped by barbed wire which left him with thankful for his life and with a gruesome scar on his neck.

The town of Buritica is named after a local cacique who was burned for not revealing to Spanish Conquistadores the source of the gold in the region, a stubbornness and stoicism which has echoed through the ages and characterized the efforts of the project’s promoters to advance it, facing similar aggression from multiple sources along the way.

Continental Gold was the vision of Bob Allen, owner of Grupo de Bullet, who had operated the Centena mine for many years and believed it could be something more.

Having formed Continental Gold in May 2007, he convinced some of the most astute investors in the junior mining space to invest including George Ireland’s Geologic Resource fund and Passport Capital’s Neil Adshead—who subsequently became a key part of the Sprott Natural Resources team—as part of the initial investor group.

Allen named the company Continental Gold because he liked expansive connotation of the name, suggestive of a multinational organization with multiple assets in the hemisphere. The first logo of Continental Gold replicated the globe logo of Continental Airlines, with Allen adamant the company should not adopt a Colombia artifact as a logo as other companies had done, although it subsequently did with the change of management in 2010, adopting the Tolima jaguar man as its central figure.

Allen’s stubbornness and drive were key in the early days when, less than a year old, he funded the company going from his own pocket for more than a year following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis which saw the gold price plunge and the capital markets close.

During this time, he resisted many predatory offers to acquire the company too cheaply, convinced of its underlying value, until the company did a reverse takeover deal with Cronus Resources in early 2010 which brought Ari Sussman into the company as CEO.

“I sent Vic Wall and Greg Hall, and former Placer Dome chief geologist to visit Buritica. After a day in the underground mine they called me and said they think it is Porgera [a large gold and silver mine in Papua New Guinea]. That was the defining moment and they ended up being right,” said Sussman.

Continental debuted on the TSX in April 2020 and the timing could not have been better: the rapid recovery from the GFC propelled the gold price towards what would eventually be record highs in 2011; Colombia was the hottest gold exploration jurisdiction in the world due to the economic opening that accompanied the Democratic Security policy of president Alvaro Uribe and dozens of exploration juniors flooded into the country as Canadian capital markets wanted couldn’t get enough.

These conditions, together with high-grade drill results, enabled Sussman to take Continental from a small mine barely generating enough cash to pay its staff to a billion-dollar market capitalization in little over a year as its share price topped out at C$10.78 barely eight months after listing, before it put out a resource estimate or an economic study.

Sussman hired the best people he could to help him advance the project such as the late geologist Vic Wall as special advisor, who was instrumental in changing the geological interpretation of Buritica from being a mesothermal vein system to a carbonate base metal vein system, which unlocked the door to defining a large resource.

Buritica’s resource grew rapidly from an initial 3.1 million ounces gold equivalent in 2011 to just shy of 9 million ounces in June 2015, and now standing at more than 11 million ounces.

He also hired COO Don Gray fresh from the successful construction of the Escobal silver mine in Guatemala to build the mine, former Cerrejon, CEO Leon Teicher as chair in March 2015, Mateo Restrepo as EVP (and later president) in August 2015 and in 2018, he brought former EVP and COO of Cerrejón Luis Meneses out of retirement as country manager, who brought a very senior manager’s hat to the table which stabilized the company and allowed the construction to proceed without further problems.

Restrepo brought a deep understanding of both the political and private sector spheres having formerly been an advisor to former president Alvaro Uribe and an executive at the Prodeco coal mine.

Teicher was former president and CEO of the Cerrejon coal mine in La Guajira, Colombia, had long experience dealing with government and local community issues, and brought a big mining mindset to the board, the company’s corporate governance and the way it operated. These latter two were to prove instrumental to overcome the many challenges in store for the project.

For Sussman, success was due to the people he hired. “The tenacity of the people involved was the standout considering how complex it is to be first out of the gate for a large gold project in Colombia, pushing forward against the odds and carrying the mining sector on the shoulders of the company. This took really talented people,” he said.

However, Sussman’s don was fund raising. He raised C$28.75 million with the initial public offering and subsequent raises of C$68.4 million in September 2010 on the back of its first reported drill results from Veta Sur of 14.3m grading 446 grams per tonne of gold and 166g/t silver.

A C$86.3 million raising in November 2012 meant the company didn’t have to raise money again for four years, which enabled Continental to weather the bear market without the dilutive financings which destroyed other juniors.

“The 2012 saw us raise at highest share price ever. We were offered a lot more money and I knew the market was at a top and I should have taken more money to reduce dilution later,” he said.

Sussman also raised US$250 million project financing in January 2017, a $109 million investment from Newmont Mining in May 2017 and $175 million in additional project financing in March 2019. In total, he raised at least $800 million for the project over the past ten years.

Ultimately, while setting Continental and Buritica on a path for success, with the prospect of having to return refinance at a time when the Canadian capital markets were viewing Colombia as a jurisdiction with increasing risk Sussman negotiated the sale of the company to China’s Zijin Mining in March 2020 for US$989 million, a surprise to many who had naturally assumed Newmont would eventually upgrade its 19.9% stake in the Continental and buy the company.

Newmont had its hands full digesting its acquisition of Goldcorp on early 2019 and readily sold its Continental stock to Zijin, banking a nice profit. When Zijin inaugurated the mine in October, it said the development cost was $610 million, some 53% more than the February 2016 feasibility estimate of $389 million.

Challenges

Navigating geological and financial market challenges are par for the course for any junior explorer CEO, but these paled compared to the challenges Colombia had in store for the project.

The project repeatedly suffered at the hands of illegality. The high-grade gold is Buritica’s main appeal but also a security risk.

In the early days, gold doré bars were taken by road to Medellin, until bandits held up the truck it was transported in on the road to Santa Fe de Antioquia. From then on shipments were undertaken by helicopter.

High-grade gold trips the greed gene in many individuals and in rural areas of Colombia where the rule of law is often only a paper concept, nefarious things happen.

In 2010, there were no illegal miners or other small-scale miners on the Buritica concessions. They didn’t start appearing until 2012 once the company had published very high-grade drill results.

These became a flood of some 5,000 illegal miners invading the concessions in 2014-2015 with criminal organizations reportedly behind the initiative.

Meanwhile, both the local and national governments did nothing, an attitude that only changed once the illegal miners started killing themselves via unsafe workings practices and the public health calamity in the town of Buritica grew to the extent that they couldn’t ignore it anymore.

The public water system in Buritica collapsed due to the illegal processing plants installed in houses; prices for food and property rocketed which meant many locals could no longer afford basic necessities; there was a spike in the number of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies in the town as prostitution took off; an increased number of accidents on the narrow road leading to the Pan-American Highway and widespread environmental destruction including mercury contamination, which some local politicians tried to pin on Continental although it had never used mercury.

When the intervention of public forces happened in April 2016, it had nothing to do with the violation of Continental’s economic rights and probably would not have happened at all given the insouciant attitude of Antioquia’s governor at the time, were it not for the astute hire of Mateo Restrepo, who managed to corral and coordinate the various state and national authorities to action, which was partially successful in shutting down and evicting the majority of the illegal miners.

However, the job was left incomplete, which meant some of the illegal invaders remained and the company was forced to formalize them under a curious change of narrative where the criminals were recast as small miners or traditional miners—despite being recent arrivals—via a government process through which the criminal becomes legal, where theft is no longer theft if you complete some forms. Problem solved, for the government at least.

The year before, Continental let go its vice president and legal representative, essentially for acting against the company’s interests. It was believed that he was a key figure in the invasion of the illegal miners, many of whom came from Segovia where he previously worked to liquidate the Frontino Gold Mines company.

After his dismissal from Continental he was arrested in March 2016 in Buritica on suspicion of being one of the organizers of criminal mining in Antioquia, according to former president Juan Manuel Santos.

After his dismissal and prior to his arrest this individual attempted to discredit the company by accusing it of corruption and trying to buy its environmental license by bribing Corantioquia officials.

While no evidence was presented to substantiate this claim, local press ran the story anyway, which cast the company into a political hurricane, particularly given that the Antioquia governor of the moment was Sergio Fajardo, who had taken a stance against private mining companies and who essentially went out of his way to avoid assisting them in any way, such as refusing to sign concession contracts and failing to respond to the Buritica social crisis.

Fajardo’s slogan was “Antioquia, the most educated” which for mining seemed to be implicit acceptance of illegal miners stealing state resources while wreaking environmental destructing and social havoc out of sight in a backwater of the department.

The illegal miners were Antioqueños and voters after all. It is hard to understand failure to support a project which uses the best available mining and environmental technology, advanced water management systems, which now provides 1,243 direct jobs, 1,075 indirect jobs and has contributed tens of millions of dollars to social programs undertaken through strategic alliances with Conservation International and SENA among other organizations, and which will provide a strong source of funding for this department for decades.

Together with SENA, Continental developed an underground mining school which has graduated Colombia’s first female underground miners. Continental started publishing annual sustainability reports in 2017 and has undertaken various environmental protection and restoration projects, invested in local agricultural production capacity through the Future Harvest program, as well as greatly improving the health and education service provision in the town.

The political brouhaha surrounding the false corruption claims delayed Buritica’s environmental permitting by at least a year. With a lack of clarity on the progress of the Corantioquia process and an increase in the size potential of the project which was crossing the permitting threshold, the company changed to permit Buritica with the ANLA national licensing authority as the project became a PINES project of national interest. The project finally received its environmental permit in November 2016.

Just when Continental thought the majority of its challenges were behind hit, its darkest hour was yet to come.

September 2018 witnessed the murder of three local geologists by dissidents of the former FARC terrorist group at the Berlin project in Antioquia, a few short weeks after a mine engineer had been shot dead at Buritica.

The company’s share price fell to a two-year low following the murders and concerns about the broader security situation.

Buritica is a once-in-a-generation gold asset which will underpin the development of the local region for many years. It is also a testament to human will overcoming adversity; of the literal blood, sweat and tears of too many people and large-scale investment, undertaken by foreign companies, which generates benefits that largely remain in Colombia.

It will be a landmark mine in terms of production, mining practices, social development aspects and a healthy financial contributor through taxes and royalties at the national, regional and local level as it produces an annual 253,000 ounces of gold and 466,000-oz of silver.

It took stubbornness and determination to get Buritica into production, overcoming theft, corruption, invasion, criminal gangs and murder in addition to locking horns with often apathetic local and national government which abandoned the company alone to deal with rule of law issues alone.

As the money starts to roll into government coffers from Buritica, including a projected COP$3 trillion (US$786 million) in royalties, one wonders how much better many rural communities in Colombia could be doing if there had have been adequate government support for the dozens of other explorers that came to Colombia a decade ago?

Continental, for example, in 2019 made social and environmental investments totaling COP$14.6 billion and COP$13 billion in purchases from local suppliers.

In 2018, these investments were COP$8.4 billion and COP$11.5 billion respectively, and in 2017 these totaled COP$4.3 billion and COP$4.7 billion.

But looking to the future, the greatest value of Buritica could be setting out a pathway for other projects to follow of how to do advance a gold project into production in Colombia.

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About Medellin Herald

Medellin Herald is a locally produced, English-language news and advisory service uniquely focused upon a more-mature audience of visitors, investors, conference and trade-show attendees, property buyers, expats, retirees, volunteers and nature lovers.

U.S. native Roberto Peckham, who founded Medellin Herald in 2015, has been residing in metro Medellin since 2005 and has traveled regularly and extensively throughout Colombia since 1981.

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