International Union Mission Reports on Colombia Visit

News from Colombia | on: Monday, 31 March 2008

A mission to Colombia arranged by the global union federation UNI has reported on "systematic murders" of trade unionists and how the Colombian Government "continues its attitude of denial, turning a blind eye to the seriousness of the murders." The mission was sent following the murder of Leonidas Gomez Rozo, leader of the National Union of Bank Workers of Colombia (UNEB).

Here Justice for Colombia reproduces the mission report in full:

Mission Report

Bogotá, Colombia 18-19 March 2008

Following the murder of Leonidas Gomez Rozo, leader of the National Union of Bank Workers of Colombia (UNEB), at the beginning of March 2008 in Bogotá, Colombia, UNI Global Union sent a mission for urgent meetings with affiliates and Leonidas' family, and to protest to the Government about this new case of death of a representative of the labour movement.

The delegation, which visited Bogotá on May 18th and 19th 2008, was composed of UNI Americas' Regional Secretary Rodolfo Benítez, UNI Americas' Finance Director Marcio Monzane and UNI Global Union's Assistant General Secretary Raul Requena. A meeting was organised with local affiliates, and an official visit took place with the General Prosecutor of Colombia.

The mission is deeply thankful for the cooperation and information provided by the ILO staff at the office in Colombia, particularly to Mr Beethoven Herrera.

At the meeting with affiliates and other local organizations, representatives of ANEBRE, FENALGRAP, UNEB and CUT (Central Unitary Workers' Union) explained the main difficulties faced by the labour movement and reported on the political, social and labour situation in the country. The meeting agreed on the position that UNI would present to the representatives of the Colombian Government.

The mission once again witnessed first hand the dangers and serious difficulties faced by union leaders in carrying out their duties in Colombia. Labour activity is becoming more and more risky and unions have lost strength in Colombia. Systematic murders, the existing legal impunity and anti-union practices of enterprises, especially foreign companies and multinationals, keep all those with any link to unions, especially union leaders, in a state of fear and without legal protection.

In 21 years (1986-2006), 2,525 murders have been committed against people affiliated to labour organizations. The number is evidence in itself of the extermination that the Colombian union movement is being subject to, without need of any further explanation.

In spite of the obscenity of these figures, the Government continues its attitude of denial, turning a blind eye to the seriousness of the murders. President Alvaro Uribe Vélez, whose term of office extends up to May 2010, insists in presenting reports before the international community that diminish significantly the dimension of this national difficulty. At a press conference on April 19th 2007, he declared that in 2006 "only" 25 union leaders were murdered. Real statistical surveys show that in 2006, 72 union leaders were killed, and during the first half of 2008, 11 murders of union leaders have already taken place. Most of these crimes have been committed during and after processes of collective bargaining or strikes. This obviously has had a negative impact on social and economic union objectives.

The mission acknowledged the existence of propaganda spread by a death squadron of the paramilitary group called "black eagles" - one of the various groups that operate in Bogotá. It presents leaders of social and labour organizations as "military objectives". The pamphlet shows a list of names, male and female, threatened with death. The mission was informed that while there are no such threats being made against union leaders of organizations affiliated to UNI, many leaders consulted on this issue reported that their telephones are being tapped and that they are being continuously chased by paramilitary groups, or the guerrilla represented by the FARC or the ELN.

The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army) are guerrilla movements created in 1966 by Marxists, catholic and communist political activists. At the beginning of the 80's, the Colombian Government developed a plan against insurgencies designed by the U.S.A. that enabled the creation of "self-defence groups" or paramilitary to fight the advance of the FARC and the ELN. The paramilitaries are ideological groups defining themselves as nationalist right wing groups. Most murders have been carried out by these paramilitary groups.

Since March 2007, the country is going through a new political crisis due to the disclosure of a corruption and political favours network, affecting some State institutions managed by an alliance between traditional clientelism, drug dealers' mafias, and paramilitary groups. 51 congressmen (senators and members of parliament) are connected to this phenomenon called "parapolitics"; some of them are under arrest. This has been exposed thanks to the persistent reporting and demands for truth, justice and repair that the victims and social movements have been seeking for decades. But this has also resulted in death threats for the denouncers.

The meeting with the representatives of the judicial power of Colombia took place on March 19th, between 9:00 and 11:30 hrs at the Head Office of the Prosecutor-General of Colombia. The UNI delegation was composed of Raul Requena, Rodolfo Benítez, Marcio Monzane, Leonor Sierra, representative of ANEBRE and president of the UNI-Colombia Liaison Committee, and Rafael Junco of UNEB. Beethoven Herrera from the ILO also participated in the meeting.

On the Government side, twelve heads of areas related to the Prosecution were present, as well as representatives of the Ministry of Justice, led by Mr. Luis German Ortega R., National Director of Prosecutors, and the Head of Prosecutors' Special Unit for the investigation of grave violations of human rights against union leaders, Mrs. Sandra Janeth Castro. This unit includes thirteen prosecutors, one of whom is conducting the investigation into the murder of Leonidas Gomez Rozo. The Vice-Minister of Labour also participated in the meeting.

The demand of UNI centred on the defence of human rights and the rejection of any form of violence against union leaders. UNI demanded a technical and independent investigation with the aim of bringing to justice those responsible. UNI stated that it does not organize campaigns of discredit against governments, but will not accept statements by the Vice-Minister of Justice classifying the case of Leonidas Gomez Rozo as a crime of passion.

The National Director of Prosecutors stated that the Government intends to investigate all the crimes and that in Leonidas Gomez Rozo's case they will carry out a monthly review of the progress until the case has been solved.

The Prosecutor in charge of Leonidas Gomez Rozo's case pointed out that there are still no clues to determine the profile of the murderer, and that an investigation is under way. However, as mentioned previously, the Vice-Minister of Justice had stated on a television channel RCN that the case was about a crime of passion. This modus operandi has been applied to many other murders of union leaders, which in the end were proven to have been carried out by paramilitaries.

The mission solicited the Head of the Prosecutors' Special Unit to issue regular briefings on progress in the investigation, and to prevent other possible assaults. This petition was well received. UNEB and the local interested parties will remain in contact with this Unit.

It is important to point out the concern of Government representatives with regard to the country's image on an international level. They risk being affected by a campaign that shows the State as not making progress on issues related to impunity or the protection of defenders of human and labour rights. This observation is particularly important in view of the Government's intention to sign a Free Trade Agreement with U.S.A. The US Government has conditioned the conclusion of the Agreement to improvements in the situation as regards human and labour rights.

The mission recommends the following actions:

1. To monitor actively the situation in Colombia and report to all international instances on the grave violations of labour and human rights which the labour movement is being subject to.

2. To report to union organizations and governments that provide financial resources to the UNI Union Development Program about the seriousness of the situation, and to seek intervention of the Embassies in Colombia and press for the pursuit of truth.

3. To coordinate actions of solidarity and to report before the European Union, the OAS and other international bodies in order to speed up pending investigations and put an end to impunity.

4. To grant support to initiatives of the Union National Centrals (CUT, CTC and others) that are fighting for the International Criminal Court to confer on crimes against labour and social leaders, the rank of crime against humanity, in order to be able to prosecute those responsible beyond national legislation.

5. To request the ICTU and donor organizations for a new S.O.S. initiative (Solidarity Campaign carried out in 2006), and to launch an international campaign for labour and human rights.

6. To cooperate in the development and reinforcement of the local union movement.

7. To carry out a follow-up activity on multinational enterprises in which murdered labour leaders were employed (Leonidas Gomez Rozo created CITIBANK union and worked for that company until the day he was killed). Companies like CHIQUITA, COCA-COLA, NESTLE and others have been involved with paramilitaries who are known to have murdered union leaders.

8. To strongly lobby members of the U.S Congress in Washington to demand guarantees of implementation of the international conventions related to labour and social rights, signed by the Government of Colombia.

Colombia has a long and tragic history of murders of labour leaders, and a very poor record of punishing those responsible.

Of the 2,515 reported cases, 98% remain unsolved. The Colombian State has been strongly criticized at national and international level for failing to guarantee the right to justice. It is evidently not enough to hand over bullet-proof jackets and armour-plated cars to protect the union leaders' lives. A much more effective policy is obviously required, as well as concrete measures to fight impunity.

The international labour movement must reinforce strategic alliances in order to keep this issue as an urgent priority at the ILO, the OAS, and other similar organizations.

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