Sunday, October 26, 2008

Targeting Unions in Colombia

Dispatches From the Edge

Targeting Unions in Colombia

By Conn Hallinan

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

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

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

Nor is there any question why trade unionists are the

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

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

'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

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

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.'