By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Courtesy of the Freitas family|
You watch the video, searching for answers. The footage, shot in October 1997, shows a tall, dark-haired young man standing on the steps of the mammoth Occidental Petroleum building in Westwood, addressing a group of protesters. Dressed in suit and tie with a backpack slung incongruously over his shoulder, he fixes his gaze in the direction of the camera. It is the searing look of absolute conviction doused with moral outrage. His words spill forth in a tumult of indignation as he speaks of the ravages wrought by foreign oil operations, the threat to pristine ecosystems and indigenous cultures, the often lethal mix of petroleum exploration and local resistance.
Similar protests are planned for this week, when Occidental convenes its annual shareholders meeting in Santa Monica, but Terence Freitas won’t be there. The passionate young environmentalist who so energized the demonstrations of past years was kidnapped in Colombia with two other American activists on February 25. All three were murdered the following week, their bodies left in a cow pasture just across the Venezuelan border.
Freitas’ death, at the age of 24, put an end to an extraordinary odyssey, one that took him from his home in Los Angeles to the cloud forests of the Andes to the boardroom of one of the oil industry’s most powerful corporations.
In the course of 22 months, Freitas had become a pivotal figure in an international campaign on behalf of the U’wa –- a small Colombian tribe whose battle to stop Occidental from proceeding with oil exploration on its land has drawn global attention since 1995, when the tribe threatened to commit mass suicide if the company persisted with its plans. He was, in the words of one co-worker, "almost this young god in the movement."
The murder of Freitas, 41-year-old Ingrid Washinawatok and 39-year-old Lahe’ena’e Gay sent shock waves through political and activist circles both here and in Colombia. Another jolt was delivered less than a week later, when the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) issued a statement blaming the killings on a low-ranking FARC commander acting without authority. Subsequent evidence suggests that the orders may have come from the top, but no one knows what might have prompted the rebels to take the lives of three committed progressives who embraced many of the same principles espoused by the FARC.
Still, violent attacks against human-rights activists are commonplace within the context of Colombia’s bloody civil war. Freitas understood well the dangerous circumstances confronting anyone doing political work in Colombia — indeed, he had received death threats prior to his final trip. Still, he chose to continue that work, putting his life in jeopardy for what most would consider a distant struggle.
"Have you seen Men With Guns?" asks Julie Freitas, pointing to a videotape of John Sayles’ 1998 film, in which an idealistic doctor is exposed to the horrors of a nameless Latin American country beset by brutal internecine conflict. "I saw it last night. It helps me to understand how people could do something like this."
Freitas sits down at the kitchen table in the North Hollywood home where her son Terry grew up and opens a binder with various memorabilia. Among the condolence letters are notes from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Congressman Sam Farr and Andres Pastrana, the president of Colombia, who writes of his own kidnapping almost a decade ago.
In the living room, lying on the piano, are photos of her son’s casket taken by a photographer friend at LAX, where his body was flown by the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela. "The State Department offered to put an American flag on it," says Freitas as she looks at the pictures. "I decided to put a world flag on it. I thought Terry would like that."
Terence Freitas was born in 1974 in the small Northern California town of Inverness. His father, Peter, was a young painter, his mother a teacher. Delivered at home, he was given a middle name that reflected his status as a son of the counterculture: Unity.
"We thought he was going to unify the world," explains his mother matter-of-factly. "I kind of felt that when I was carrying him."
The family moved to Los Angeles when Freitas was 3, just before the birth of his brother Kian. His parents broke up when he was 6, and he remained with his mother (who later had a daughter, Jennifer, with a different father). Julie Freitas enrolled her kids at Highland Hall, a Waldorf school in the north Valley that places a strong emphasis on ecology and social consciousness. These values were reinforced by his mother’s support of various environmental causes — she went to a rally at the San Onofre nuclear-power plant while she was pregnant with him — and her work as a childbirth-preparation and parenting instructor.
Freitas, who was drawn to nature from an early age, spent his summers at a rural camp called Cedar Mountain in New Mexico run by family friends Michael and Patty Gold. It was one of the formative experiences of his youth, deepening his connection to the wilderness and exposing him to indigenous cultures. Camp also provided an early primer on environmental battles. "The first year that we had the camp, we had a run-in with an oil company," recalls Michael Gold. "They wanted to drill on my property. Terry was there and saw what was going on."