‘One Of The World’s Most Dangerous Places For Trade Unionists’

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A SHAM paramilitary demobilisation process, combined with thousands of cases of threats and killings and a chronic lack of investigations and prosecutions, makes Colombia one of the most dangerous places in the world for trade unionists, according to a new report released today.

Amnesty International’s report, Killings, arbitrary detentions, and death threats – the reality of trade unionism in Colombia, highlights a pattern of systematic attacks against trade unionists involved in labour disputes and in campaigns against privatisation and in favour of workers’ rights in some areas where extractive industries operate.

Colombia’s National Trade Union School documented 2,245 killings, 3,400 threats and 138 forced disappearances of trade unionists between January 1991 and December 2006. Despite their supposed demobilisation, army-backed paramilitaries and the security forces are thought to be behind most attacks. Guerrilla groups have also been responsible for such killings.

‘Trade unionists across Colombia are being sent a clear message: Don’t complain about your labour conditions or campaign to protect your rights because you will be silenced, at any cost,’ said Susan Lee, Amnesty International’s Americas Programme Director.

‘By failing to adequately protect trade unionists, the Colombian authorities are sending a message that abuses against them can continue, while companies operating in Colombia risk being held accountable for human rights abuses for which, through their conduct, they may bear responsibility.’

The report includes the cases of human rights abuses against trade unionists – and their relatives – working in Colombia’s health, education, public services, agricultural, mining, oil, gas, energy and food sectors.

Amnesty International is calling on companies working in Colombia to use their influence with the Colombian government to end and prevent human rights abuses against trade unionists.

‘This report is a wake-up call for any multinational company operating in an environment in which human rights are systematically violated. Inaction is no longer an option,’ said Susan Lee.

Successive Colombian governments have implemented policies to improve the safety of trade unionists, including a programme that allocates armed escorts, bullet-proof vehicles and telephones to some threatened trade unionists.

‘While such measures are welcome, attacks against trade unionists will continue unless effective measures are taken to end the impunity enjoyed by those killing and threatening them.’

Amnesty International’s report also highlights the Tripartite Agreement signed by the Colombian government, Colombian business representatives and Colombia’s trade union confederations in June 2006, under the auspices of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The agreement provides for the establishment of a permanent presence of the ILO in Colombia to monitor the application of freedom of association rights in the country and progress in efforts to advance investigations into the killing of trade unionists.

‘The International Labour Organization (ILO) agreement is a key opportunity to tackle the human rights crisis facing trade unionists. It is now imperative that the Colombian authorities, multinational and Colombian companies, and the international labour movement work together with the office of the ILO in Bogotá to ensure investigations into all cases of threats and attacks against trade unionists and their relatives.’

In recent years, the food workers’ union SINALTRAINAL has been involved in labour disputes, often with large multinational companies. Human rights violations have often coincided with periods of labour dispute.

On 10 February 2007 a written paramilitary death threat addressed to SINALTRAINAL members was pushed under the door of the ASTDEMP offices in Bucaramanga, Santander Department in the centre of Colombia.

The death threat named SINALTRAINAL activists Javier Correa, Luis García, Domingo Flores and Nelson Pérez, and accused them of being ‘terrorist Coca Cola trade unionists’. The trade unionists were warned to put an end to the ‘trouble in the Coca Cola company as enough damage has already been caused’ and that if they failed to do so, they would become military targets of the Paramilitary group “Águilas Negras”.

The death threat was on a sheet of paper with ‘AUC Aguilas Negras’ (the Auto Defensas Unidas de Colombia, United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary umbrella group) at the top of the page and supposedly came from the ‘Aguilas Negras Front Lebrija’ (‘Frente Aguilas Negras Lebrija’).

In a letter to Amnesty International on 7 June 2007, Coca Cola Company explained that it had communicated with the Colombian authorities on several occasions in respect to threats against SINALTRAINAL activists calling on the authorities to undertake investigations into these threats and guarantee the safety of the threatened trade unionists.

Amnesty International is not aware of significant advances in any investigations on this case.

On 11 September 2005, Luciano Enrique Romero Molina’s body was found with his hands tied and more than 40 stab wounds.

The body was found in the Las Palmeras farm in the La Nevada neighbourhood of Valledupar, north east Colombia, an area believed to be under the control of paramilitaries, despite the fact that paramilitary forces operating in the region were supposedly engaged in a process of demobilization between December 2004 and March 2006.

Luciano Romero had been a leader of the Cesar branch of SINALTRAINAL and of the human rights organisation Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee (Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos, CSPP). On 28 February 2002, SINALTRAINAL had presented a series of demands for improved working conditions to the Nestlé-CICOLAC company.

When these demands were not met, the trade union undertook strike action on 12 July 2002.

Paramilitary death threats against SINALTRAINAL leaders increased after strike action was initiated. In October 2002, Luciano Romero and other colleagues were sacked from their jobs at the Nestlé-CICOLAC plant in Valledupar. Luciano Romero was threatened, reportedly by paramilitary groups and forced to flee his home and then the country, before returning to Colombia in April 2005.

Luciano Romero had been due to travel to Switzerland to attend a meeting on 29 to 30 October 2005 as a witness to death threats against trade unionists representing workers in Nestlé plants in Colombia.

Nestlé-CICOLAC informed Amnesty International that it had called for an investigation into the killing of Luciano Romero.

Amnesty International is not aware of significant advances in any investigations on this case.

On 19 September 2006, Alejandro Uribe Chacón was killed as he was on his way back to Mina Gallo, municipality of Morales, Bolívar Department, reportedly by members of the Colombian army’s Nueva Granada Anti-Aircraft Battalion (Batallón Antiaéreo Nueva Granada).

Alejandro was a leader of the Association of Miners of Bolívar Department (Asociación de Mineros del Bolívar), and President of the Community Action Council (Junta de Acción Comunal), of the community of Mina Gallo. The Association of Miners of Bolívar Department is linked to the Agro-mining Federation of the south of Bolívar Department (Federación Agrominera del Sur de Bolívar, FEDEAGROMISBOL).

Witnesses said they saw soldiers taking Alejandro’s body towards a military base in San Luquitas in Santa Rosa Municipality. According to information received by Amnesty International, on 20 September, the army presented Alejandro’s body to the judicial authorities as that of a guerrilla killed in combat.

According to reports, witnesses have said that over the last year members of the Nueva Granada Anti-Aircraft Battalion have threatened to kill FEDEAGROMISBOL leaders.

Soldiers have also reportedly told local residents that their operations aim to guarantee the presence of international corporate mining interests in the area. This is an area in which the gold-mining company AngloGold Ashanti (Kedahda S.A.) has interests. Alejandro and other local miners had opposed the arrival of this company in the area.

AngloGold Ashanti wrote to Amnesty International on 5 June 2007 stating that it could not comment on ‘the intentions of the Colombian armed forces regarding their presence in the Bolívar Department’.

Referring to the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, the company also informed Amnesty International that AngloGold Ashanti was ‘developing our internal systems for ensuring the implementation of the Principles throughout our organisation’.

Amnesty International is not aware of significant advances in any investigations on this case.

On 25 November 2006, gunmen travelling on two motorcycles opened fire on the bullet-proof car assigned by the state oil company ECOPETROL to USO (oil workers union) leader, Rodolfo Vecino Acevedo, on the road between Barranquilla, Atlántico Department, and Cartagena, Bolívar Department.

Rodolfo was not travelling in the car but his wife, Martha Cecilia Marrugo Ahumada, his bodyguard Álvaro Marrugo and an acquaintance, Edward Martínez were and managed to escape unharmed.

Three days later, the USO received an e-mailed death threat in which the Bloque Norte of the AUC reportedly claimed responsibility for the attempt on the life of Rodolfo Vecino and announced its intention to kill USO and student activists in the north of the country. The paramilitary death threat gave USO leaders and student activists at the University of Cartagena 20 days to abandon the region:

‘… DESPITE OUR DEMOBILIZATION WE RETAIN OUR MILITARY AND INTELLIGENCE POWER FOR THIS REASON WE WANT THE FOLLOWING TO HAPPEN SON-OF-A-BITCH USO TRADE UNIONISTS SON-OF-A-BITCH CARTAGENA UNIVERSITY LEADERS AND THOSE THAT CAMOUFLAGE THEMSELVES IN PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES YOU HAVE 20 DAYS TO LEAVE YOUR CITIES… IF YOU DO NOT OBEY… BE PREPARED FOR THE CONSEQUENCES WE KNOW EVERYTHING SO AVOID PROBLEMS’.

Rodolfo Vecino has received other threats over the last few years.

There are many other cases of threats and deadly attacks on trade unionists in Colombia.