Jan 10, 2012

The story of Ingrid, Terry and Lahe - international solidarity activists killed in Colombia

Three US citizens were killed in Colombia on March 4, 1999 while doing international solidarity work. Though they were not accompaniers, their work was related, and I was surprised that their story was unknown by most of the accompaniers I talked to in Colombia, so I want to share it here. The three were kidnapped by the FARC on February 25th, 1999. Their bodies were found one week later, blind-folded, bound, tortured, and shot in the face. They were found just over the Venezuelan border.

The three had visited the U’Wa people to help them establish a school for their children in their own language that would support the continuation of their traditional ways. Ingrid, 41, specialized in this. She was a member of the Menominee nation and rising leader in the struggle for indigenous peoples’ rights, at the US and UN level. She was the director of the Fund for the Four Directions in New York City, founded by Anne Rockefeller, which promoted the revitalization of indigenous languages and cultures. She studied at the University of Havana, and had done work in Guatemala with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú. Lahe'ena'e Gay, 39, was a member of the Kanaka Maoli Nation of Hawai`i. Lahe was the founder and director of Pacific Cultural Conservancy International, which works to preserve cultural as well biological diversity.[1] Terence Freitas was only 24 but had been working with U’Wa for several years, after serving as an official observer at a Los Angeles meeting between Occidental Petroleum and U'wa leader Roberto Cobaría in May 1997. He co-created and coordinated the U'wa Defense Working Group. Terry was close to my age at the time, as was his girlfriend, Abby Reyes, who I met at the vigil to close the School of the Americas shortly after he was killed. His story has continued to grip me because he was so like me. I can so easily imagine me being him – which is precisely what helps accompaniers build networks of solidarity.

Terry had been to the U’Wa territory several times in the two years before they were killed. The U’Wa territory extends into Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, where Occidental petroleum owns the large Caño-Limon oilfield, which is said to have huge reserves.[2] They also co-own the pipeline that takes the oil out to sea for shipping. That pipeline has been repeatedly bombed by the ELN guerillas, so Oxy spent nearly $4 million lobbying the US Congress to expand military funding.[3] In return they got hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pipeline protection, since much of the US military aid and training was earmarked for the region around the pipeline, despite the 18th brigade in the region being notorious for attacking civilians.

Both Occidental and Shell were carrying out aggressive exploration for more oil in the area, in traditional U’Wa territory. The U’Wa consider this a sacrilege, for they see oil as the life blood of mother earth. During the Spanish conquest a great number of U’Wa committed mass suicide by walking off a 1,400-foot cliff in the Andes mountains rather than be enslaved. The 5,000 member U’Wa Nation has threatened to do so again if the oil companies move in. They have received a good deal of international support for their struggle, in part because of Terence’s initial organizing which helped them to connect to other groups. One of their most dramatic efforts was an intense prayer and fast retreat in which they asked Mother Earth to move the oil. Exploratory drilling had initially found signs of a huge reserve, but after the prayers, they found no oil (though they did find gas). Shell and Occidental Petroleum pulled out and rights were transferred to the Colombian national oil company Ecopetrol, which has recently been partially privatized. Ecopetrol continued exploratory drilling in U’Wa territory, and found oil in other sacred sites. The U’Wa continue their nonviolent resistance with actions like occupying drilling platforms, speaking tours, and actions at shareholder meetings.[4] They held a 6-month roadblock with 10 to 20 thousand people, including U’was, campesinos, and unionists, to block the oil machinery from going in to drill, which was broken up by the military in 2001.[5]

The U’Wa did and do not collaborate with any of the armed actors. As such they did and do not have an easy relationship with the FARC. The FARC had publicly said that internationals were not welcome in the area, but Terry had actually met with them prior to bringing down Ingrid and Lahe, explained the reason for their trip, and had gotten word from the commander that they would not be harmed.[6] Ingrid and Lahe were not working on the U’Wa campaign to stop oil exploration, but it certainly shaped what happened to them. The FARC in that area were allegedly on friendly terms with Occidental,[7] who had repeatedly threatened U’Wa leaders.

The FARC claimed both the kidnapping and killings were a mistake made by a commander acting without approval and issued an apology.[8] Those who stopped the car at a roadblock and kidnapped the three did not fit the profile of the local FARC at all.[9] They were much younger, not dressed in fatigues, and had their faces covered - which has led some to wonder if they were a rogue group that was perhaps put up to it by a faction opposed to the peace accords, either within or outside of the FARC.

When the killings happened the first major peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government had just been suspended, but were scheduled to start up again in April. They never did get taken up again, and there have been no further peace negotiations since. The New York Times argued at the time that the FARC had nothing to gain from killing US citizens, since they had been seeking the support of foreign governments for the negotiation process itself.[10]

The Menominee Nation and various other US indigenous rights groups accused the US State Department of destabilizing their own negotiations with the FARC for the release of the three, which they had believed was imminent.[11] During those negotiations the State Department released $230 million dollars in military support for the Colombian army, which then killed 70 members of the FARC in an attack. The three were killed immediately after, perhaps in retaliation.[12]

All of the indigenous peoples of Colombia (which has 84 First Nations) have suffered greatly in the war, from both sides. They insist on neutrality and control of their own territory – and all of the armed actors challenge them on it. They often live in remote areas that the different armed groups want to use as drug trafficking routes. The department (province) of Arauca, where the U’Wa territory is, has long been one of the hottest areas of the war – because of the oil, the flood of guns, and its border with Venezuela. It has been hotly disputed – even the two guerilla groups (FARC and ELN) have fought each other there. It also has a heavy paramilitary presence. It is local organizers for peace and justice that suffer the most violence, from all of the armed actors.



[1] Mathew Yeomans, “Chaos in Colombia,” Salon.com Newsreal, March 1999, http://www.salon.com/news/1999/03/19newsb.html.

[2] At the time the three were killed Al Gore was vice-president (he served from ’93 to ‘2001, under Clinton). U’Wa supporters targeted Gore because of his close ties and large stake in Occidental, where his father was on the board for three decades. Terry was present at a meeting between Al Gore and U’Wa leader Roberto Cobaria. Gore did not, however, publicly pressure Occidental. Only long after his own 2000 presidential campaign did he take a stand on Colombia and refuse to take the stage with President Uribe because of his war crimes.

[3] “Witness for Peace : Colombia”, n.d., http://www.witnessforpeace.org/section.php?id=95.

[4] The U’Wa Defense Working Group is now part of Amazon Watch. For more on the current U’Wa struggle see http://amazonwatch.org/work/defend-uwa-life-and-territory

[5] Sandra Alvarez, personal communication.

[6] Ana Arana, “Murder in Colombia,” Salon.com, December 14, 1999, http://www.salon.com/news/feature/1999/12/14/colombia.

[7] Abby Reyes, “Letter to Al Gore from Abby Reyes, Terence Freitas’ girlfriend,” Colombia Support Network, n.d., http://www.colombiasupport.net/200003/areyes-letter-0310.html.

[8] Arana, “Murder in Colombia.”

[9] Andrew Jacobs, “3 Kidnapped Americans Killed; Colombian Rebels Are Suspected,” New York Times, March 6, 1999, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/06/world/3-kidnapped-americans-killed-colombian-rebels-are-suspected.html?pagewanted=1.

[10] Ibid.

[11] They had received an email saying that they would be released. Not long before this incident three US birdwatchers were released after being held by the FARC for a month.

[12] “A Tribute to Ingrid Washinawatok El-Issa”, n.d., http://www.aics.org/aimva/ingrid.html.

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