The Killing Continues as US Doubles Down on Failed Trade Policies

A number of notable events took place in the past week which underscore the U.S.’s continued failed policies in Latin America. And of course, these notable events were almost totally ignored by the mainstream of the U.S. press.

First, Joel Hernandez Godoy, the Finance Secretary of the SITRABI union in Guatemela, was murdered by two gunmen on motorcycle. Mr. Hernandez is the second SITRABI unionist killed this year in Guatemala. SITRABI represents Del Monte banana workers, and, along with the AFL-CIO, is a party to a pending labor complaint against Guatemala filed under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This labor complaint involves serious claims of labor abuses in Guatemala — now the second most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists after Colombia which has held the number one spot for years. Among the labor abuses charged in this CAFTA complaint is the murder of another SITRABI leader, Marco Tulio Ramirez.

Guatemala had promised, as a condition of CAFTA, to deal with the problem of anti-union violence within its borders and had even brought the union murder rate down to zero for the two consecutive years leading to CAFTA approval. However, as USLEAP has noted, once CAFTA was passed, the rate skyrocketed again, with 9 unionists killed in 2008 and 16 unionists killed in 2009.

This should be a lesson to those hoping for Colombia to ensure protection for unionists once the Free Trade Agreement with that country is passed.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, at least a dozen unionists have been killed in that country so far this year, with two union teachers killed within recent days, including one in the city of Cali. Another unionist, Carlos Arturo Castro, an engineer, was also killed in Cali on May 23. Mr. Castro was with the union SINTRAEMCALI, a union of public sector workers in the city of Cali. A couple of weeks before Mr. Castro was killed, a lawyer for SINTRAEMCALI, Hernan Dario, was himself shot five times in the city of Cali. Sadly, Mr. Dario passed away in the hospital from these wounds on June 2.

While the Colombian Embassy in Washington, desperate for the Colombia FTA, is attempting to write off the three (3) labor-related killings in Cali as somehow unrelated and as the product of random or even drug-related violence, it is well-known that unions in Cali, and the SINTRAEMCALI union in particular, have been a special target of intensive military/paramilitary harassment and threats for years. Most famously, SINTRAEMCALI has been the target of a harassment and assassination program known as “Operation Dragon” — a joint military/paramilitary operation which targeted 150 social, political and labor leaders, including the SINTRAEMCALI union.

One of the masterminds of this operation was Lieutenant Colonel Julian Villate Leal who was trained at the School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia. As the Associated Press (AP) reported in an April 2007 article entitled, “Alleged Assassin Worked at U.S. Embassy in Colombia,” when the “Operation Dragon” plot was uncovered, Mr. Villate came under criminal investigation, and, needing a place to hideout, found refuge as an employee at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota where he worked until receiving employment, upon a positive reference by the U.S. Embassy, at the Drummond Coal Company. See also, Washington Post (April 30, 2007). I was told by a reliable source in the Colombian DAS (the analogue of the U.S. FBI) that “Operation Dragon,” was never called off, and that those on the hit list are still targets of the Colombian security forces. The recent assassinations may be proof of this.

Further, Amnesty International has just released a report concluding that, despite the stated good intentions of Colombian President Manuel Santos – who, as Defense Minister of Colombia oversaw Colombia’s “false positive” program pursuant to which the Colombian military murdered over 3,000 civilians and then passed them off as guerillas to guarantee further aid from the U.S. — paramilitary groups are on the rise in Colombia and are continuing to receive aid and support from the U.S.-backed Colombian military. Meanwhile, according to the well-respected human rights group CINEP, extra-judicial killings by the U.S.-backed Colombian military skyrocketed in 2010, with an almost 70% increase in the number of victims of such killings. CINEP has also concluded that there have been 38,000 “forced disappearances” in the past three years, and that such disappearances have only accelerated under the current administration of President Juan Manual Santos.

In short, Colombia remains a death squad state – with the full support of the U.S. — a “Genocidal Democracy,” in the words of renowned Colombian human rights advocate Father Javier Giraldo. That Colombia is nonetheless the closest ally of the U.S. in the Hemisphere, however, should not be surprising as the U.S. has never seen a death squad government in this Hemisphere that it hasn’t liked or sponsored. Indeed, the violence happening in Guatemala today is a continuation of the violence that the U.S. unleashed decades ago when, at the urging of United Fruit (now Chiquita), it overthrew the democratic government of President Arbenz and installed a military dictatorship which proceeded to kill around 200,000 civilians in the succeeding years.

Against this background, Secretary of State Clinton announced this past week that she is certain that the Colombia FTA will be introduced by the Obama Administration in the very near future. Bill Clinton’s own confession before the Senate last year that such free “trade policies have failed everywhere they have been tried,” should ring in Secretary Clinton’s ears and in the ears of President Obama. And, recent events in Guatemala prove how such policies have been a failure in guaranteeing labor and human rights. Still, the Administration seems doomed by its own ideological dedication to free trade and free market principles to push through another bad trade deal with Colombia – a deal which will ratify Colombia’s continued gross violations of human and labor rights.

Dan Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh.




Dan Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.  His latest book is No More War: How the West Violates International Law by Using ‘Humanitarian’ Intervention to Advance Economic and Strategic Interests.