FORBIDDEN STORIES AND CUESTIÓN PÚBLICA. OCCRP. October 18, 2023
Nine days before he was killed, journalist Rafael Moreno told Forbidden Stories he believed construction companies were illegally extracting sand and rock from the Uré River in northern Colombia. A year after Moreno’s brutal murder, journalists have uncovered evidence that backs up his suspicions.
In a response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, Custodio Acosta Urzola, mayor of San José de Uré, said he signed contracts with several construction companies to build and fix roads to improve access to the isolated town in the Córdoba region, Forbidden Stories reported.
At least one of those companies, Consorcio Versalles, is accused of “extraction in the bed of the river” in an internal investigation by a regional government environmental agency, which was obtained by reporters.
“This seems to have been carried out without the required authorizations and permits, which is worrying for the ecosystem and the local population,” said the report by the Corporación Autónoma Regional de los Valles del Sinú y del San Jorge (CVS).
Consorcio Versalles did not respond to Forbidden Stories’ request for comment. In his response to the FOI request, Acosta said his administration was not authorized to issue permits to mine gravel, “much less to make agreements with individuals in this regard.”Colombia Jarred2
Individuals illegally extracting material from the river in San José de Uré (September 14, 2022). (Photo: Anonymous sources)
The CVS investigation was prompted by a complaint filed by Moreno. He had provided the agency with evidence collected during visits to sites along the Uré, where he filmed excavator machines digging gravel from the river bed and loading it into dump trucks.
“There are four or five diggers working day and night. It's a disaster,” Moreno said on the phone to Forbidden Stories in early October 2022. “They are doing irreparable damage to the basin, which is part of our region's cultural and natural heritage.”
Just days after that phone call Moreno was dead.
Moreno had been closing up the bar and grill he had recently opened to help make ends meet in the city of Montelíbano on October 16, 2022. A man walked in and fired three shots at Moreno, killing him instantly, according to police records.
A year later, police have arrested no suspects, despite having photos of the hitman. Known as “the voice of the people,” Moreno had received numerous threats for his investigations into corruption and environmental crime.
While it is not known who ordered Moreno’s murder or why, colleagues who helped him investigate gravel extraction in the Uré river have also been targeted.
This past August, unknown gunmen killed the 22-year old son of Walter Álvarez, a journalist and friend of Moreno’s who had accompanied him on reporting trips. “I can’t see any other reason except that they wanted to shut me up,” Álvarez said.
One month after his son’s murder, Álvarez received a WhatsApp message that warned: “You will soon be keeping Rafael Moreno company… We are going to kill and burn you.”
Yamir Pico, another journalist who worked with Moreno on the Uré River investigation, was also threatened with death. Pico was alone in his apartment in Montelíbano one evening in May when two armed men broke down his door.
“One told me, ‘We don’t want to kill any other journalists, but the next time you touch the San José de Uré affair, you’ll be dead,’” Pico told Forbidden Stories.
They confiscated his computer, notebooks, and two USB keys that Moreno had given him before his murder. Two days later, Pico secretly fled Colombia.
Pico alleged that companies extracting gravel are in league with politicians as well as Clan del Golfo, Colombia’s most powerful criminal group. The companies save money on public contracts by getting gravel for free, without paying for a permit or buying it from a legitimate supplier, he said.
“It represents a fortune, that’s why they are ready to kill anyone,” Pico said. “It’s why they sent two sicarios [hitmen] to my house.”