In the era of neoextractivism, one of the main roles of the state – which nominally has the monopoly over the use of force – is to guarantee the security of transnational capital invested in extractive operations.
For Oscar Campanini6, from the the Bolivian Centre for Documentation and Information (CEDIB), “the state is essential to carry out extractivism.” First, because it needs to make operations viable through the normative and laws. It is also a protagonist through state-owned companies. But mainly, it is the state that resolves the contradiction in conflicts through violence exercised by state apparatuses, such as the police and the armed forces.
In recent decades, several Latin American governments have created tough police units designed to control protests and intervene in socio-environmental conflicts. One such unit is the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD for its acronym in Spanish) in Colombia. Created in 1999, this unit is in charge of ‘riot and crowd control, blockades, accompanying evictions from public or private spaces that occur in urban or rural areas on national territory’.
ESMAD has become notorious for its brutality, especially when repressing indigenous and peasant communities who resist eviction from their land to clear the way for mining, oil exploitation and the construction of mega-dams. They are consistently deployed in the midst of socio-environmental conflicts. In Colombia, 25% of the conflicts reported between 2001 and 2011 were related to oil, gold and coal.
ESMAD evicted Samuel Arregocés’ community in Tabaco in 2001. Many other communities that resist extractive projects have suffered similar attacks. It is a ‘police force marked by 20 years of serious human rights violations’, says the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CAJAR). ‘34 people have lost their lives at the hands of the ESMAD during social protests. … It has systematically engaged in torture and the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of its victims’. ‘To this systematic violation of human rights, one must add the systematic impunity that conceals them. There [has not been] a single conviction for the murders and tortures committed.’
A report by the non-government organisation (NGO) Temblores affirms that there were 1,352 ESMAD officers in 2006, rising to 3,328 in 2018. Its budget is around 13 million Colombian pesos (roughly US$ 3.5 million). CAJAR states that between 2001 and 2018, the Colombian government allocated 84.7 billion pesos to its operations (approximately US$ 23 million).
This case illustrates the true function of the security forces in conflict situations, which is to serve the interests of extractivism, but their protection of extractive operations and of the TNCs goes way beyond this. In Peru, for example, Earth Rights International (ERI) has brought to light how the law ‘empowers the Peruvian National Police… to create agreements with extractive companies that allow the Police to provide private security services within the facilities and other areas … of extractive projects in return for profit’. According to ERI, at least 138 agreements were signed between 1995 and 2018, of which 109 had been signed before 2017 and 29 were still in effect in 2019. In effect, the state is turning into a private police force for transnational capital.
Katherine Paucar7 of ERI, says that “The state has gradually been generating mechanisms that have allowed them to guarantee that resources continue to be exploited in the territories of indigenous peoples. This results in the violation of their rights.”
Gigantic TNCs, such as Anglo American, BHP, Glencore, Southern, Newmont, China Minmetals Corporation, have shares in operating companies that have signed agreements with the police in recent years. The companies provide the police logistical support, basic services, communications equipment, food, vehicles, internet, office supplies and more. According to ERI, between 2010 and 2018, the police were paid 45.5 million soles (more than US$ 12.2 million) for their security services.
The majority of police interventions occur in conflict situations, a frequent occurrence in Peru. According to the Office of the Ombudsman of Peru, between December 2019 and December 2020, 197 conflicts had been reported, of which 129, or 65%, were categorised as socio-environmental.
ERI concludes that in Peru, ‘policing has been privatized’ and the agreements are being used ‘as a strategy for the State to guarantee the ordinary course of action for extractive activities in the framework of its extractivist policy’.
This security doctrine is part of an economic ideology and an agenda aimed at opening up the region to investment and relaxing environmental norms, which goes back to the 1990s and was reinforced during the era of the commodities consensus. It is a regional trend, symbolised by countries such as Colombia and Peru.
Twenty years ago, Colombia implemented the so-called ‘democratic security’ and ‘investor confidence’ policy, comprising economic liberalisation and increasing security for foreign investment. Following the same logic, the government created the ‘mining, energy and road battalions’ formed by the Colombian armed forces, charged with protecting extractivist activities, infrastructure and important roads from attacks. To do so, entire areas have been militarised and patrolled. These batallions are special units of the armed forces under the command of the Colombian Department of Defense. In 2012, the then Minister of Defense, Juan Carlos Pinzón, said that the protection of the country’s mining, energy and road infrastructure, “is not only a duty but a priority, because through that infrastructure, the wealth of Colombians moves, creating employment opportunities and development.”
These battalions function by order of the government, but companies can also hire their services. In 2014, the existence of several security contracts between extractive companies and the mining and energy battalions came to light. The Colombian government justified them by referring to the internal armed conflict. Investigations by the Colombian organisation Tierra Digna found that as of 2015, there were at least 21 special energy and road battalions in Colombia. It also revealed that between 2001 and 2013, 103 contracts were signed for which companies handed over the sum of 45 billion Colombian pesos to the state for the battalions’ services (around US$ 12 million). Companies, such as Glencore, Anglo American, BHP, AngloGold Ashanti, Drummond and others, have paid for these services.
Ultimately, the goal is ‘to strengthen the armed forces throughout the national territory and expand the mining-energy sector to make it the largest one in the economy’. It is ‘a security policy for extractivism’, says Terra Digna.
One consequence of these security policies is growing impunity. In the case of Peru, according to Rodrigo Lauracio, there is a ‘Police Protection Law’ that “overprotects” the police when they use their weapons in conflict situations. ‘Police officers cannot be tried on equal terms, as other citizens’, he says. This law favours the disproportionate use of force, which leads to greater violence and greater impunity. This is a pattern that is repeated in other countries.