In February, geologists Karina Banquéz, Andrés Mauricio Botero, John Elber Ríos and Germán Ayala set out to do geochemical testing for the Colombian Geological Survey in Norte de Santander, in northeastern Colombia.
Little did they know their time in the field would last much longer than planned.
Guerilla fighters from the National Liberation Army (ELN) kidnapped them on Feb. 19 and held them for 20 days.
This was not the first time that geologists were victims caught up in a dangerous game that is part political protest, part lucrative financing.
Andrés Felipe Calle was kidnapped in late June last year while doing cartography work in Colombia’s Cesar department. He was held in captivity for two months.
Though Colombia’s overall security situation has improved in recent years and the Santos administration’s negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, Cuba, has resulted in some progress, demonstrations against the oil and mining sectors are increasing.
According to a report by the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation, attacks against petroleum infrastructure in Colombia increased from 325 percent between 2011-14. Attacks by the ELN, the group claiming responsibility for the most recent geologist kidnappings, increased from 31 in 2012 to 68 in 2014.
The ELN has been invited but is not yet participating in peace talks with the Colombian government.
While both kidnapping cases ended well – all of the geologists were released without physical harm – results are not always so promising.
On Feb. 27, geologist Ricardo Molina was shot by unknown gunmen on his way home from work in San Jose del Guaviare. As an official with the North and West Amazonas Development Corp., Molina’s primary job was to combat illegal mining in the country’s fertile Amazon department.
Enough Is Enough
Members of Colombia’s tightly knit geological community are confronting the difficult news with calls to protect and defend their colleagues and their profession.
The Colombian Geological Society publishes official communications following acts committed against geologists, and the Colombian Association of Geoscientists and Geophysicists (ACGGP) President Jaime Checa has been featured on national media.
Checa led fellow geologists in a “March for Life” held in Bogotá March 8, one of multiple events calling for the kidnapped geologists’ release.
Wearing a T-shirt reading “Freedom is Life for Geologists” and holding a banner with the victims’ photos, Checa told reporters that enough is enough.
“We’re displaying our concern because (geologists) have been captured, and this is something that cannot continue occurring,” he said. “We’ve come to protest and raise our voices because kidnapping geologists is becoming commonplace, and no one protests. By saying nothing, essentially we are accepting it.”
Geologists across Colombia responded to the February kidnappings by organizing demonstrations in Bogotá, Medellin, Sogamoso and Manizales – cities whose universities have strong geoscience programs and AAPG chapters.
AAPG member Juliana Ceballos, a former AAPG student chapter president at EAFIT University, attended demonstrations in Medellin.
“We march to show solidarity with our colleagues and their families, but also because our profession is always affected by this situation,” she said. “We do not want to keep doing our work with a continual fear that we could be kidnapped at any time.”
Too Close To Home
The kidnappings were uncomfortably personal for Ceballos, who works at Gemi, S.A.S., alongside the geologists captured in Norte de Santander. She said news of the kidnappings shocked her.
“The news hit me really hard,” she said. “I never imagined that something like this would to happen to people so close to me, to my colleagues, not to mention the fear that invaded me when I realized that none of us are exempt from this type of situation.”
Ceballos said knowing the geologists personally helped her realize that she had been complacent in the past.
“I started to realize how insensitive I had been other times when kidnappings were present but not personal, when I had believed that would never happen to me or anyone close to me,” she said. “That’s why I got involved in using social networks and any media that could reach people to spread awareness about the current situation in a beautiful country that has so much to give, but that each day is torn by seemingly endless war.”
Participation in the anti-kidnapping movement spread far beyond individuals who knew the geologists personally.
Colombia AAPG Young Professionals (YP) chapter president Alejandro Velasquez helped to organize marches in Bogotá. He said he became involved because he doesn’t want kidnapping geologists to become common practice in Colombia’s armed conflict.
“We hope to give a message of hope to the victims and their families and also show that we do not accept these practices, Velasquez said.
Velasquez was joined by Francisco Trujillo, former student chapter officer at the National University of Colombia in Bogota.
Trujillo said he felt that, as a geologist and an AAPG member, he had no choice but to be involved in the demonstrations.
“This is a problem that we cannot ignore,” he said. “Now we have had five geologists kidnapped in the past two years, as well as the murder of a colleague. I think it is our duty as members of the profession, and more as part of the Association.”
The February kidnappings brought back frightening memories for AAPG member Eliana Gomez, University of Caldas graduate who was a friend and classmate of AAPG member Andrés Felipe Calle, captured by the ELN in June 2014.
“When I found out Andrés had been kidnapped, it was terrible, horrible, indescribable,” she said. “A friend called and told me, and, with the phone in my hand I started crying. My friend cried too.
“I felt profound sadness, anger,” she continued. “The first few days were the worst. I’d start to eat something and then think about how Andrés couldn’t eat. It was awful.”
Gomez channeled her angst into action. She worked with friends to organize marches and candlelight in the university and in the city of Manizales. While the marches did not reach the scale of the demonstrations held in multiple cities, the support was still important for Calle and his family.
Gomez and a group of four friends, including Calle’s sister, formed a Facebook group, “Quiero que liberen a Andrés Felipe Calle” (“I want Andrés Felipe Calle Released”) late at night a few days following the kidnapping. Within four days the page had 5,000 followers.
The girls started another page, “#Sin cadenas” (“without chains”), to support other families whose relatives have been kidnapped.
“We’ve noticed that in Colombia, there’s not much information about people who are deprived of their freedom. Many times their parents are older and don’t know much about media or how to mobilize people,” Gomez said.
Social media played an important role in the February activities as well.
The Twitter feed “#liberenlosgeologos” (“free the geologists”) featured posts from geoscientists throughout Colombia and across the globe and was one of the first sites to announce the geologists’ release on March 10.
Geologists participating in the marches and social media campaigns said they hope their efforts will help give the ELN and the society at large an improved image of geologists, who in many cases are viewed as extensions of the mining or petroleum industry.
Rebels Without a Clue
Ceballos said a lack of understanding about what geologists do makes them more likely to be victims of kidnapping.
“I would venture to say that since many people associate geology with the mining and petroleum industry, geologists became political and/or economic targets. These groups think that holding geologists will help them put pressure on the government or generate the revenue they need to subsist,” she said.
Ceballos stressed the importance of teaching society that not all geologists are involved with petroleum or mining, that they are members of civil society who have the same rights as everyone else to make a living.
“We are just doing our jobs. We are not part of the conflict, and we have the right to work and to be free,” he said.
Gomez, who works for a company that conducts environmental impact studies, said that if she could speak to the ELN personally, she would tell them that most geologists have no interest in being part of the conflict and that geologists work to protect the earth and the community.
“(The ELN) should understand that our geologists’ work is not to attack the country or to attack them. There are other forces charged with that task. We work for the community and community safety,” she said. “We do not just work to get oil out of the ground. We work to protect our natural resources. Sometimes we do extract commodities that are the result of exploration and development, but we can do so in a sustainable way.”
Gomez said understanding goes both ways, adding that, while she does not excuse the ELN’s tactics, she can understand their actions.
“I do not share their ideology, and I never support depriving people of freedom,” she said. “However, I do not judge them. There are many young people in the ranks, and they know nothing else. They’ve never had the opportunity to study and learn.”
When asked what can be done to improve understanding and end the conflict, few geologists have solid answers. Most concur, however, that they are determined to continue their work despite the risks involved.
In Spite of All the Danger
Shortly after his kidnapping, Calle returned to the Cesar department, and he currently works in safe urban areas.
His friend Eliana recently completed fieldwork in the same area where he was captured.
“Going to that area definitely made me nervous. There I was working 20 minutes from where they kidnapped Andrés,” Gomez said, admitting that fieldwork in certain parts of the country continues to be risky.
“I think twice about working in the field, but I won’t give it up. Geologists working at a desk can’t do much. In the office you can’t see what you see in the field,” she said.
Gomez is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the National University of Colombia, and she is determined to stay in the country after graduation.
“I want to work in Colombia,” she said, noting that despite the challenges the country is a beautiful place with opportunities for geologists.
“There are some bad people, but we are not all that way. We speak out about kidnappings and our problems, but do not want the country’s image to suffer. Not all of Colombia is unsafe. People can move about peacefully in most parts of the country,” she said.
Gomez said a long-term goal of hers is to work with colleagues to promote “geological tourism” in Colombia.
“We want geologists from other parts of the world to come see Colombia’s geology. The country has very beautiful areas, very nice outcrops. We have lots of access to streams and biodiversity. It is a great place to study geology,” she said.
For Trujillo, Colombia’s geology helped him fall in love with the profession.
“What I like about my job is the opportunity to study the earth from a variety of fields, not only be in laboratories or in front of a computer. Geology has led me to meet people, exotic places, unforgettable experiences,” he said.
Those exotic places and unforgettable experiences help bring geologists back to the field, as do their colleagues who embrace them and accompany them along the way.