There are lots of places in the world where you need to watch your step. You don’t want to be a Sunni in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad (or vice versa). It’s probably not smart to speak Tamal in southern Sri Lanka. You might want to keep being a Muslim under wraps in parts of Mindanao. But most of all you don’t want to be a trade unionist in the U.S.’s one remaining ally in South America, Colombia.
“Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist,” says Jeremy Dear, chair of the British trade union organization, Justice For Colombia (JFC), “In fact, more trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia during [Alvaro] Uribe’s presidency than in the rest of the world over the same period.”
In April, the Colombian Trade Union Confederation reported that the first part of 2008 saw a 77 percent increase in the murder of trade unionists.
One of the latest victims was Luis Mayusa Prada, a union leader from Saravena. On Aug. 8, two men pumped him full of bullets—17 to be exact. Prada was the third member of his family to be assassinated by right-wing paramilitaries. His sister Carmen Mayusa, a nurse and leader of the National Assn. Of Hospital and Clinic Workers, is on the run from death threats.
Prada, who left behind a wife and five children, was the 27th unionist to be murdered in 2008 and joins 3,000 others who have been assassinated in the past two decades. Only 3 percent of the cases have ever been solved.
The fact that so many cases go unsolved is hardly surprising. The perpetrators work hand-in-glove with Colombia’s police, military and, according to recent revelations, President Alvaro Uribe and his political allies.
According to the Washington Post, the head of Uribe’s secret police, who also served as the President’s campaign manager, was arrested for “giving a hit list of trade unionists and activists to paramilitaries, who then killed them.” Fourteen of Uribe’s supporters in congress have been jailed for aiding paramilitaries, and 62 others are under investigation.
There is an unholy trinity between the government, the Colombian military, and multi-national organizations that has reduced the number of trade unionists from more than three million in 1993 to fewer than 800,000 today.
Nor is there any question why trade unionists are the target.
Starting in the 1990s, foreign owned companies began investing heavily in Colombia. From 1990 to 2006, according to a recent study by Al Jazeera, direct foreign investment increased five-fold, making up 33 percent of the national earnings. In 2007 that jumped another 30 percent.
A major impetus for this influx of foreign capital is the push for a free trade agreement (FTA) with the U.S., an initiative begun under the Clinton Administration forms a centerpiece for the Bush Administration’s Latin America policy.
Most trade unionists have resisted the influx of foreign investment because it has led to the privatization of government-owned services, such as hospitals and water systems. Unionists also fear that a FTA will wipe out Colombia’s small farmers and manufacturers, as it has done all over Latin America.
Cesar Ferrari, an economist as Bogotá’s University of Javeriana, says a FTA will benefit consumers, “because prices will decrease,” but “the producers, usually small farmers will lose out” because they cannot compete with subsidized U.S. goods.
Democrats concerned with labor rights are currently holding up approval of the FTA.
When unions and small farmers protest, the death squads appear, sometimes egged on by Colombia’s political leaders. When Colombia’s Vice-President Francisco Santos recently accused trade union members of links to “terrorists,” he essentially declared open season on unionists
Multinational corporations are also tied to the paramilitaries. Chiquita Brands International admitted to paying over one million dollars to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the umbrella group for right-wing paramilitary death squads. Trade unionists have filed suits against the huge multinational food giants, Nestle and Coca Cola, charging that the companies have helped to target trade unionists for murder.
“There are tight relations between the government, the paramilitaries and corporations,” Renan Vega Cantor, a professor of history and economics at the University of Pedagojica told Al Jazeera. “The industrialists, commerce, land owners and TNCs [transnational corporations] were all behind the paramilitary groups.”
The U.S. has supplied more than $5.5 billion in aid to Colombia, the bulk of which goes to the military. Britain also supplies and trains the Colombian military.
Both countries are training the notorious High Mountain Battalions (HMB), an elite force that, according to Dear of JFC, has been directly linked to human rights violations. “International groups such as Amnesty [International] have denounced the killing of trade unionists at their hands, while Colombian human rights defenders have documented the gross and systematic violations carried out by the HMB, including torture, murder and the disappearance of numerous civilians.”
The JFC recently protested a meeting between British Foreign Office minister, Kim Howells and HMB commander, General Mario Montoya. Howells responded by accusing JFC of being linked to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Howells withdrew the charge under a barrage of criticism. “Such ill-informed remarks could put at risk the lives of trade unionists, journalists and human rights defenders involved in projects supported by Justice For Colombia,” Dear points out.
JFC also demanded that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband investigate whether Britain may have trained Colombian army troops implicated in a series of 30 assassinations. Miliband has yet to respond to the organization.
According to a Washington Post examination of civilian deaths, the Colombian military has been killing civilians they then claim are guerrillas. Since 2005, according to the United Nations, murders of civilians have sharply escalated. The Uribe government has doubled the size of the Colombian military, making it the second largest on the continent.
“We used to see this as isolated, as a military patrol that lost control,” Bayron Gongora, a Medellin lawyer for the families of victims told the Post, “But what we are now seeing is systematic.”
The Colombian Inspector General’s office says most of the victims are marginal farmers, or even people kidnapped off the street. Vice Inspector Arturo Gomez told the Post that the increase in civilian deaths reflects the intense pressure Uribe has put on the military to come up with elevated body counts. A UN investigation found that the Army carries extra grenades and firearms to plant on victims.
Besides trade unionists, political activists, and random farmers, indigenous groups are targeted as well. On Sept. 28, a death squad murdered Raul Mendoza, an indigenous governor, and former member of the Council of Chiefs of the Regional Indigenous Council (RIC). Two other indigenous leaders, Ever Gonzalez and Cesar Marin, were assassinated as well.
According to RIC, Mendoza had warned local authorities that he had been threatened for criticizing the government’s lack of concern for the poor, and for his support for striking sugar cane workers. Some 18,000 sugar workers are on strike for higher pay and improved working conditions. Currently sugar workers work seven day a week, 14-hours a day.
Mendoza was murdered the day after Uribe charged that the sugar workers were linked to FARC.
The U.S. is currently expanding its presence in Colombia. The Colombian weekly Cambio says the U.S. is planning to move its military base from Manta, Ecuador, to Palanquero, 120 miles north of Bogotá. In 1998, U.S. mercenaries based at Palanquero rocketed a village in Eastern Colombia, killing 18 civilians. The base was also instrumental in Colombia’s March attack on a FARC camp in Ecuador that drew widespread condemnation throughout the region.
The Palanquero base houses up to 2,000 people and can handle up to 60 planes on three airstrips.
The move, however, has generated opposition in Colombia. “A decision of this caliber would have serious repercussions for our foreign relations,” former Colombian Defense Minister Pardo Rueda told Teo Ballve of NACLA Report. “The possible base would reinforce the opinion that the decisions of Colombia are subordinated to the north,”
The U.S. also recently reactivated its Fourth Fleet, which according to the Navy will conduct “varying missions including a range of contingency operations, counter narco-terrorism, and theater security cooperation activities” in Latin America. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva sharply condemned the move and warned that Brazil might consider responding by putting its navy on alert.
With the exception of Colombia, and U.S. support for the 2002 coup in Venezuela, the U.S, preoccupied with its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,.went through a period of military disengagement from Latin America, But that military footprint growing once again. Given the loss of its traditional bases in Panama, it will have to find friendly countries in Latin America, a rare commodity these days, to host its bases. Even if Washington felt inclined to criticize Colombia’s human rights record—and to date it has shown no such inclination—it is even less likely to raise the issue when it is looking for a new base.
Hence the killings go on.
“This climate of constant violence must end,” says Guy Ryder, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation representing 168 million workers in 155 countries. “The workers of Colombia are crying out for respect of their most basic rights, as enshrined in the fundamental ILO [International Labor Organization] conventions ratified by Colombia.”
CONN HALLINAN is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus.