Deadly attacks on Colombian teachers & trade unions are condemned by Education International!

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Education International supports its affiliate, the Federación Colombiana de Educadores, in denouncing and firmly condemning assassinations and threats targeting Colombian educators, trade unionists, and social leaders.

Several teachers have been assassinated, threatened and targeted by violent groups in Colombia.

Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Carlos Alfonso Negret, has deplored the fact that between 1st January 2016 and 30 June 2018, 311 social leaders and human rights defenders have been killed in the country.

In May alone, four teacher unionists in different regions have been killed – Holman Mamián Mamián, in Cauca; Evelia Atencia Pérez and Hernando Manjarrez Escudero, in La Guajira; and Delmayro Reyes González, in Valle del Cauca – while six others have been attacked, resulting in one being wounded, in a truck in Arauca.

Deyanira Ballesta, a teacher from Bolivar, also received a death threat which was recorded, shared online and became a topic of national news. The chilling man’s voice tells her: ‘You have to leave this region, or I will murder you. You know that we have the power to kill whomever we want. Do you understand? I will alert those who are in charge of education that they will have to pick you up dead.’ Ballesta has since been put under protection and is now in hiding.

On 3 July, six social leaders were killed during the World Cup game Colombia vs. England in Chocó, in Palmar de Varela. Among them were Ana María Cortés, murdered in Cáceres, Antioquia; Luis Barrios Machado, in Palmar de Varela, Atlántico; Felicinda Santamaría in the municipality of Quibdó, Chocó; and MargaritaEstupiñán in the El Recreo neighbourhood, Vaquerío.

On 7 July, teacher Frank Darío Rincón was stabbed to death in the centre of Pitalito, in Huila.

Deaths still under investigation The Federación Colombiana de Educadores (FECODE) has denounced the violent events and crimes and called for the protection of all teachers and educators.

In a communiqué dated 26 June, the trade union demands ‘respect for the life of each and every educator in the country. We vehemently reject these crimes being deployed against teachers as political weapons.’

Standing in solidarity with the teachers’ families and friends, the union categorically rejected the political use of these terrible events. It also explains that ‘it is a known fact that situations such as trafficking, criminal organisations, regional violence and other actors represent a constant threat for the country’s teachers and education institutions.’

As educators, ‘we are under constant threat,’ FECODE deplores. ‘We are exposed and defenceless.’ Stressing that in some cases, the Colombian authorities have already found the perpetrators but have not provided more information on the reasons for these crimes, FECODE further calls on the authorities to investigate these deaths and establish security measures to protect teachers who have been threatened and reminded everyone that ‘schools are territories of peace’.

On 5 July, the United Nations’ Office for Colombia also released a statement in which they ‘vehemently condemn the assassinations of human rights defenders and social leaders’. The same day, the Colombian trade union confederation (CUT) released a statement rejecting ‘these abominable acts’, demanding ‘immediate action from the authorities’, and inviting Colombians to join the mobilisations ‘for peace and life’ to be organised on 7 August nationwide ‘to stop and denounce these waves of violence’.

Background Education International is distressed that the Colombian educators and trade unionists’ situation is once again worsening following decades of extreme human rights violations in the country. In May 2017, EI sent out an urgent action appeal calling for international solidarity with Colombian educators after an explosive device detonated in front of a FECODE headquarters in Bogotá resulted in significant material damage, both to the headquarters and to neighbouring houses.

At that time, Education International had urged the Colombian authorities to deepen the investigation in search of the perpetrators of the attack and propose real and lasting solutions in order to sustain and promote free quality public education. It also stressed that ‘the Colombian school community deserves that the authorities protect and respect the teaching and education work force as a whole and value their effective contributions to the construction of roads for peace, tolerance, respect and coexistence.’

Delegates at Unite the union’s July 2018 policy congress have called for the release of a detained Colombian peacemaker. Jesús Santrich was a key negotiator during the Colombian peace process, which effectively brought an end to the country’s decades-long armed conflict.

This war killed over 200,000 people and displaced millions.

Delegates, including the union’s leader Len McCluskey, held signs with the words ‘Justice for Jesus’ for cameras at the conference. Santrich, who is blind, is a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – Colombia’s main guerrilla organisation (now disarmed).

He was arrested in April 2018 on allegations of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the US.

He’s currently incarcerated in Colombia and facing extradition to the US, which initiated the charges. Supporters of Santrich have condemned his arrest as a frame-up by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), orchestrated in collaboration with right-wing forces within Colombia. Ironically, Santrich was one of the few members of the FARC’s leadership whom the US and Colombian governments had not accused of drug trafficking until recently.

The matter has been further complicated by the terms of the peace agreement governing the trying of alleged conflict-related crimes. According to the final document, that was signed and ratified by the Colombian Congress in 2016, crimes committed by the FARC before the conclusion of the peace process are to be tried in a special court, known as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).

The JEP decided in May to suspend Santrich’s extradition for 120 days in order to determine whether there is any evidence that the crimes alleged by the DEA took place after, rather than before, the signing of the deal. It also issued a subpoena for all information ‘related to the extradition process and privation of liberty’. Santrich ended a 41-day hunger strike protesting at his arrest in response to the decision.

The affair has added further strain to the peace process after hard-right politician Iván Duque narrowly won the 2018 presidential election against leftist candidate Gustavo Petro. Duque ran on a platform of opposing the peace process and is a protégé of former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. During Uribe’s time in office, Colombia launched an aggressive and controversial counter-insurgency campaign with US backing. Uribe allegedly had ties to drug cartels and was accused of colluding with right-wing death squads.

Petro, on the other hand, ran a campaign based on supporting and building on the peace deal, and is himself a former guerrilla with the now-defunct M-19 rebel group. Supporters of the peace process have pointed out the hypocrisy of the likes of Duque and Uribe in their labelling of the peace process as a ‘monument to impunity’ for the FARC, given the fact that right-wing paramilitaries were responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties during the conflict.

Uribe’s hypocrisy is particularly flagrant given that he is widely believed to have himself financed these death squads and is described in a 1991 intelligence report from the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) as a ‘close personal friend of Pablo Escobar’ who was ‘dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín (drug) cartel at high government levels’. Furthermore, during his presidency, the Colombian military itself murdered more civilians than the FARC did in the prior three decades combined.

Colombia has for years been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for union members and activists. Over the last two decades, for example, around 3,000 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia – with an impunity rate of about 87%.

Unite the union has not just been a consistent consistent supporter of the Colombian peace process, but also a staunch advocate for human and workers’ rights in Colombia. It is affiliated with and has even provided office space for Justice for Colombia, an NGO that works to promote peace, social justice, human rights and especially improved security for union activists in Colombia.