Portrait of the Activist as a Young Man

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."

By high school, Freitas’ activist inclinations began to emerge. He started a recycling program, urged students to adopt conservation measures and wrote about his distress over the devastation of the Earth. A poem composed at age 16 ended with this bleak meditation: "Why does it feel like only the dead have spirits/And the living care less than the dead?"

In May 1997, Freitas met the man who would change the course of his life: U’wa leader Roberto Cobaria.

Freitas had returned to Los Angeles the previous year from UC Santa Cruz (where he earned a dual degree in biology and environmental studies) and landed a job with an environmental and indigenous-rights group called Sol Communications. Cobaria, meanwhile, had come to L.A. to meet with Occidental executives.

"I noticed that he immediately bonded with Roberto, there was a link between them," says Francois Mazure, special-projects director of EarthWays Foundation, an environmental organization that hosted Cobaria during his visit. "Roberto was the father and Terry was the son."

As head of the 5,000-member U’wa tribe’s traditional governing body, Cobaria has been one of the key opponents of Occidental’s proposed oil project. The controversy dates back to April 1992, when a consortium led by Oxy bought exploration rights to a large slice of acreage in northeast Colombia called the Samore block that overlaps with part of the U’wa reservation, as well as ancestral territories also claimed by the tribe. After three-way talks between the company, the Colombian government and the tribe broke down, the U’wa vowed to commit mass suicide if Occidental didn’t back off. This threat was not taken lightly — according to tribal lore, a large portion of the U’wa walked off a cliff en masse centuries ago rather than submit to the conquering Spaniards. Occidental has yet to drill a single well, though an environmental permit is now pending on the first site.

U’wa territory contains large expanses of virtually untouched land, including lush, bio-diverse jungles and high-elevation forests enshrouded year-round by clouds. Tribe members see themselves as guardians of the environment, and their reverence for nature resonated deeply with Freitas. "I remember him showing his photographs from the U’wa territory, and you could feel the physical zeal of his excitement," says Leslie Wirpsa, who spent 10 years in Colombia herself as a journalist and became romantically involved with Freitas in the fall of 1997, remaining a close friend until his death. "I can imagine what he was like in the territories. Here’s this profoundly exquisite ecosystem with a people that had been able to sustain it."

In June of 1997, upon returning from the first of five trips to Colombia and the U’wa lands, Freitas devoted himself completely to the fight against Occidental’s oil project. He quickly formed a coalition called the U’wa Defense Project (later renamed the U’wa Defense Working Group) that brought together 14 U.S.-based environmental organizations. His mother’s home, where he was living, actually became the de facto headquarters for the international campaign until he was hired in January 1998 by Project Underground, a Bay Area environmental and human-rights group, to compile a report on the U’wa-Occidental standoff.

"It wasn’t evident, the intensity, and how much he was doing," says Julie Freitas. "All I knew was that he was in that room forever on the computer." The extent of her son’s involvement became clear when she woke up one morning to find the leader of the U’wa tribe in her living room. "In the morning I let the dog out, and she was licking Roberto, who was sleeping on my childbirth mats on the floor."

To Freitas, the U’wa-Oxy battle was a classic example of a multinational company pursuing profits at the expense of the local population and environment. Oil drilling on or near U’wa lands, he believed, would bring a chain reaction of violence, ecological disaster and social disintegration. Leftist guerrillas, who have launched hundreds of attacks on Occidental’s Cano Limon pipeline in a neighboring province, would target the new facility. A similar pattern of huge oil spills and military reprisals would ensue. Meanwhile, the project would wreak havoc on the traditional U’wa social structure, dividing tribe members. The ultimate result, he warned, would be the destruction of another indigenous culture.


Not surprisingly, Occidental has consistently rejected the fundamental arguments put forth by the U’wa Defense Working Group. "The issues there [in Colombia] are much more complex than the activists have made them out to be," says Larry Meriage, a vice president in Oxy’s oil-and-gas division and the company’s point man on the Samore proj-ect. Specifically, Meriage says Occidental, the government and the U’wa are engaged in substantial negotiations over legitimate issues involving rights and jurisdiction. "This isn’t David and Goliath, a big international oil company threatening indigenous people."

Meriage acknowledges that the U’wa have valid concerns. But he draws a sharp distinction between the U’wa in Colombia, on the one hand, and their allies in the States. "You cannot assume that the interests of the [U.S.] activist community parallel that of the indigenous community," cautions Meriage.

This view is echoed by Theodore Macdonald, associate director of Harvard’s Program on Nonviolent Sanctions and Cultural Survival and co-author of a September ’97 Organization of American States–Harvard University report calling on Occidental to halt oil activity in the Samore block as a first step toward creating better conditions if and when there is any future resumption of oil-development activities. "I would say the primary concern of the indigenous actors is government recognition of land rights and rights to participation in decision making," comments Macdonald. "You can contrast those priorities with Proj ect Underground, which was looking primarily at Oxy as a U.S.-based company."

Leaders of the U’wa Defense Working Group, however, insist that they have been taking their cues from the U’wa and the tribe’s allies in Colombia. "I think everyone working on the case is concerned primarily about protecting the U’wa," states Martin Wagner, director of international programs for the San Francisco–based Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the U’wa before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

What no one disputes is that Colombia is a nation consumed by violence. According to a recent report produced by Human Rights Watch, at least 1,200 civilians were killed last year in massacres, the majority by paramilitary forces but many by leftist guerrillas. Among these were six human-rights workers, a figure that makes Colombia the most hazardous country in the hemisphere for such monitors.

Freitas, however, was not deterred by the danger. Indeed, unlike many Western indigenous-rights and environmental activists, he spent an extraordinary amount of time in the field. "The work he was doing down there was perfect for him," says Josh Gohlke, one of Freitas’ closest childhood friends. "It was very emblematic of the person he was. He was out there trying to physically correct the problem."

Freitas’ efforts, combined with those of his colleagues and indigenous-rights advocates in Colombia, seemed to be paying off. He worked with the U’wa to help them gain basic political organizing skills and build alliances with other communities. Here in the States, the U’wa Defense Working Group generated considerable attention for the U’wa cause through protests, media campaigns, and presentations at such high-profile institutions as Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government. In February 1998, Shell, one of Occidental’s partners in the Samore block deal, indicated that it would sell off its stake. Two months later, Roberto Cobaria received the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize, along with a $100,000 check. By May, Occidental had told the Colombian government that it would give up most of its exploration rights. (The matter has yet to be resolved, however, and the company continues to press its plans to drill in U’wa territory.)

Freitas’ repeated trips to Colombia exposed him to increasing risk. A second-degree black belt in hapkido and a former self-defense instructor, he thought he could navigate these dangers. Added to this was his belief in a kind of karmic safety net.

"Terry really believed that he was protected," explains Abby Reyes, Freitas’ girlfriend for the last eight months of his life. "You do good work and you get by. You do good work and the funds come through. You do good work and the angels have you."

Freitas was not careless about the risks of travel in Colombia. Before each trip, he would take extensive security precautions, contacting Colombian authorities and human-rights organizations as well as friends and colleagues. But Reyes — who herself spent two years working with an indigenous group in the Philippines and is now the director of a New York–based peer-support and mentoring group for young female activists called Women Working for Change — also recognized in Freitas a complex emotional motivation that propelled him on despite the potential peril.

"Part of that drive, I believe, came from the appeal of standing in the fire and finding love," she says. "You go to the U’wa community and you’re in what they call the heart of the world. You’re in a place, one of very few that are left, where traditional community life exists and thrives, where you have around you a belief system about the relationship between humans and the natural world that is actually in harmony and not one of competition and exploitation. At the same time you have an imminent threat externally imposed from the north of oil exploration, which is the antithesis of any kind of vision the U’wa have about what can sustain them in their land. And that juxtaposition of light and dark, Terry wanted to be in the heart of, and was. That’s what fed him."


Freitas and his two colleagues traveled to the U’wa reservation without incident, and spent two weeks there consulting with the tribe. On February 25, while heading in a Jeep back to Saravena, they were abducted by several armed men. The Americans had been accompanied by U’wa escorts, who were allowed to go and reported the kidnapping to local authorities.

When the news reached the States, friends and families of the three activists quickly formed a communications network to try to get information about the captors. Based on the accounts of the U’wa eyewitnesses, efforts were made to contact the FARC. But it was a slow, tortuous process.

A week after the kidnappings, there still had not been absolute confirmation that the FARC was responsible. Then, on March 5, three bodies with bullet wounds were discovered near the Aracua River on the Venezuelan-Colombian border. Initial reports were that two men and a woman had been found. Then came the revised information: It was two women, and a man in his 20s with curly dark hair.

Terry Freitas will be buried at the site of Cedar Mountain Camp in Lindrith, New Mexico, on May 27, his birthday. In the wake of his murder, family, friends and colleagues have vowed to continue his work with the U’wa. On April 30, the U’wa Defense Working Group will hold a demonstration outside Occidental’s annual shareholders meeting at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Protests are also scheduled in eight other cities around the country, as well as London, Hamburg, Lima and Nairobi. At UC Santa Cruz, meanwhile, a memorial award in Frei-tas’ name has been established to support environmental-studies students working on land-use issues with indigenous groups.

Three official investigations into the killing of Freitas and his fellow activists are currently under way — one by Venezuela, one by Colombia and one by the U.S. In its communiqué, the FARC indicated that it will carry out an internal inquiry and punish the guilty parties. Julie Freitas, for her part, has issued a statement about the murders in which she asks that the guerrillas refrain from executing whomever they find culpable. "It doesn’t bring them back, it doesn’t solve the problem that the U’wa are having," she says quietly. "It only makes one more person dead. How could that contribute — one more mother saddened, one more sister devastated?"

Amid the sorrow, however, there is also solace. Freitas may be gone, but those closest to him share the firm belief that he lived with great purpose, and that the decision to continue his perilous work was a reflection of everything he had come to be.

"It’s not a question of being a realistic activist or being an idealistic or naive activist," says Reyes. "It’s about the fact that Terry had this overall vision, sense of responsibility, and gut-level survival instinct and love for people on the planet that drove him to go to that heart where light meets dark."

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