© Pedro Szekely (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) Rainbow against dark clouds, near Guatavita, Colombia
Colombia: A storm before the calm?
Last week, a new trade agreement, or bilateral investment treaty (BIT), between the UK and Colombia came into force. Defending the BIT, the British Government, when pressed late last year on the human rights situation in Colombia, responded that “progress has been made” and that they would continue to push the Colombian government to eliminate impunity. Sadly, as Amnesty, the ITUC, War on Want and the TUC’s own campaign group Justice for Colombia report that trade unionists and other activists are suffering threats, murders, attacks and arrests, the current situation in the country suggests that any progress may be faltering.
That Government response was based on the contents of the 2012 Human Rights report, but it is the situation developing since the start of 2013, when 78 human rights defenders, including 27 trade unionists, were murdered, that is increasingly of concern.
This year Colombian trade unions have been subjected to appalling violence and repression, including car bombs hidden in food supplies, incendiary attacks on demonstrations, and assassination attempts and murders of lead negotiators. It is not always rogue elements responsible – the President of the union confederation CUT, Arturo Oscar Orozco, was left with serious face and eye injuries when a demonstration of hydroelectric workers in support of a collective bargaining agreement was attacked – in a stunningly disproportionate act – with explosives by the state’s mobile riot squad (Source ITUC). CUT leader Huber Ballesteros remains in prison 10 months after his arrest for ‘rebellion’, with his trial repeatedly postponed.
In the last few weeks, urgent actions from our partners have been shared with us, each contributing to a picture of a country continuing a violent approach to workers and activists.
First, Amnesty reported that on April 29 several trade unionists, including Martha Diaz (a recent and extremely popular visitor to UNISON’s annual conference), and other campaigners had been declared “military targets” in a written threat by the paramilitary group “Self-Defense Forces of Colombia”. A delegation of Colombian activists visited the TUC not long before to ask us to monitor strikes in Colombia this summer, as they feared they would be met with violence and intimidation. Sure enough, the paramilitaries have accused the strikers of links to guerrilla groups and the campaigners are now under threat of death.
A few weeks later, Amnesty were again reporting anti-union violence, as on June 16 José Onofre Esquivel Luna, a vice-president of the Colombian food workers union, was shot at by men on motorcycles as he travelled to Medellin to attend a meeting with his union, SINTRAINAL. Fortunately he had bodyguards who returned fire, killing one assailant and injuring another. José has previously received paramilitary death threats, and these two attackers may not be the last to attempt his murder.
Finally, the ITUC, Justice for Colombia and War on Want contacted us with concerns about events in south west Colombia. Álvaro José Vega, another executive member of the CUT, was hospitalised after being attacked by individuals who threw an unknown chemical substance over him, causing burns to his face, and several trade unionists, including the President of regional union SINTRAEMCALI, and other campaigners received a threatening text message from paramilitary groups. This comes shortly after the double firebombing of the SINTRAEMCALI union offices.
War on Want has reported that their contacts on the ground in Colombia are seeing an upsurge in activity and violence from paramilitaries, particularly in the south west. The resumption of President Santos’ peace talks with the FARC, given a literal vote of confidence by the Colombian people in the recent election, provides an image of progress at odds with the official figures from 2013 and the evidence coming in this year. Amnesty International’s March 2014 report on Colombia notes that not only have paramilitary groups failed to disband despite Government promises in 2005, but there is continued evidence of their collusion with the Colombian security forces, who sometimes behave with equal savagery. Another recent visitor to UK unions, Angel Torres, had his house riddled with bullets by the Colombian army on July 4. Even worse, the Colombian army massacred four trade union activists, claiming – just like the paramilitaries – that they were guerrillas. Paramilitary forces being allowed to act as informal agents of the state and the military adopting paramilitary tactics is a blurred distinction that continues to blight attempts to bring murderers to justice.
These threats, attacks and murders are relentless because of the impunity with which those responsible carry them out. Even when convictions are secured, there seem to be no guarantees that those that challenged impunity are safe. War on Want is currently deeply concerned for the fate of activist Alfamir Castillo. Alfamir, whose son was murdered by the Colombian army in 2008, pursued justice and despite years of threats was rewarded with the conviction in June this year of seven soldiers found guilty of the crime.
Such is the dysfunction at the heart of Colombia’s efforts to fix itself, however, that the soldiers were then remanded in custody in the headquarters of their own battalion. Predictably, after only a few days one of them has escaped, with the following threat sent to Alfamir: “Listen bitch, there is a big lion loose and his mission is to kill…death to you and many others.”
Alfamir may not be a trade unionist, but without people like her having the courage to challenge impunity, trade unionists and other human rights defenders will always remain at risk. International organisations have called on the Colombian government to implement special protection measures for Alfamir, but to date nothing has been done. José Onofre Esquivel Luna’s narrow escape shows just how crucial such measures can be.
The second Amnesty and the War on Want actions are still live and you can support them by following the links, and trade unionists and others can get involved with the TUC-supported work of Justice for Colombia, via their website.