November 5th marked the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Teamster organizer José Gilberto Soto in El Salvador. Soto was in El Salvador building links with port workers in the region when he was killed by gunmen outside his mother’s home in Usulutan, 60 miles from the capital city of San Salvador.
In the year since his death, no serious investigation has taken place into his murder and its possible link to his union activities.
Soto was an organizer with the Teamsters Port Division in New Jersey and had spent the last several years in a campaign to organize port workers, mostly drivers, in the Northeastern United States. One of the major targets of his organizing drive was the Copenhagen-based shipping giant Maersk, one of the largest shipping companies in the world with offices and representatives in over 100 countries.
In 2003, Soto began working with the Danish General Workers Union to document violations of worker rights by Maersk, particularly in Central America. Maersk has a long and rotten record in the region, especially in El Salvador. In 2001, Maersk fired and blacklisted over 100 drivers in a vicious union-busting campaign. Maersk controls 80 percent of the container shipping market in El Salvador.
Soto had just arrived in El Salvador to begin his organizing work when he was murdered by two gunmen, according to witnesses. He had meetings planned with Maersk truck drivers and other port workers, as well as with labor officials in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras.
The initial response of the Salvadoran police–historically involved in the death squad killings of trade unionists and leftists–was a predictable attempt at a cover-up.
A month following Soto’s death, the police arrested and charged Soto’s 59-year-old mother-in-law, Rosa Elva Zelaya, with organizing his murder. They paraded Elva Zelaya and the three men she is accused of hiring in the alleged murder plot in front of reporters and declared that the case was “solved.” Rosa Zelaya has publicly denied any role in Soto’s murder.
The motive according to the police? Rosa Zelaya conspired to kill Soto because of the unhappy marriage between her daughter Maritza and Soto. The assassins were allegedly going to be paid out of the proceeds of Soto’s life insurance policy.
Among the many problems with this ridiculous story is that, according to the Teamsters, Maritza isn’t the beneficiary of Soto’s life insurance policy.
There are many more unanswered questions a year after his murder. Soto’s children remain unconvinced of the Salvadoran police’s “official” version of the events surrounding the death of their father.
“We all just want to see justice done,” Soto’s son, Edson J. Soto, told the New Jersey newspaper The Record last May. “We want to know why he was killed and who he was killed by. My father was important to a lot of people…I didn’t really know how important he was until after he died.” Yolanda Soto, Soto’s sister, also told The Record: “It’s hard to know what to believe because the theory of the government of El Salvador is that they accuse this woman, the mother of Maritza. But these people, the witnesses, say they’ve been forced by police to say these are the people who committed this crime.”
Last December, Beatrice Alamanni de Carrillo, director of the Salvadoran Office for the Defense of Human Rights, issued a scathing critique of the police investigation into Soto’s murder. She has been the subject of repeated death threats over the years for investigations into the violations of human rights in El Salvador. Her office was created as part of the peace treaty in 1992, ending nearly a decade and a half of civil war.
Alammani de Carrillo claimed that, among other things, the suspects were subject to physical and psychological torture including asphyxiation, sexual abuse and death threats. “They had been held in isolation for several hours and taken to remote locations, where they were subjected to illegal interrogations and physical and psychological torture,” wrote Alamanni de Carrillo. Alamanni de Carrillo ordered medical evaluations of two of the defendants, which she said showed evidence of trauma and sexual assault.
“The theory that the union activities of José Gilberto Soto may have been the motive for the homicide was never investigated by police or prosecution authorities in charge of the case,” she wrote.
Alamanni de Carrillo told a visiting delegation of American trade unionists and supporters that Soto’s murder resembled the death-squad killings that were prominent features of Salvadoran political life from the 1970s to the early 1990s. El Salvador’s right-wing death squads–made up of members of the police and military–have a bloody history of harassing and killing trade unionists at the behest of the richest employers.
So far, Soto’s long-time foe Maersk has been able to avoid being put under the spotlight for its union-busting activities in El Salvador or for any possible knowledge of the events surrounding Soto’s murder. For a company like Maersk that employs thousands of workers, owns millions of dollars worth of property, and has extensive connections with the political and security apparatus in Central America and a rotten union-busting record, one would think that they would be a focus of any investigation into Soto’s death.
Soto, himself, was clearly aware that there was chance that physical harm could come to him during his time in El Salvador. His other sister Maria says that he left a letter with her that included a list of people to call should “something happen to him.”
While the Teamsters, the International Longshoremen’s Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have offered a $75,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Soto’s killers, little else has been done in the last year.
If Soto’s killers and their corporate masters are ever to be brought to justice, a vigorous international campaign must be built that forces the Salvadoran government and Maersk to come clean.
JOE ALLEN writes for Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: email@example.com