JFC Delegation Report

Justice For Colombia News | on: Wednesday, 15 April 2009

David Drever, the President of the Educational Institute of Scotland, was one of those who participated in the recent JFC delegation of trade unionists and parliamentarians to Colombia. He has written the following article for the EIS journal which will be sent out to more than 60,000 Scottish teachers:

Colombia is a country living in fear: for some it is fear of the thirty year long civil war between successive governments and the FARC guerrilla army - the world's largest and best armed insurgent group. This atmosphere of fear was palpable as soon as the delegation, (comprising trade union leaders from the UK, Canada and the US; and a group of Westminster MPs), stepped off the plane in Bogota. We were met by armed bodyguards who accompanied us throughout our week long visit. The presence of the military was everywhere on the city streets, in the provinces, in the daily newspaper, owned by the Vice-President's family, that carried stories of military success against the FARC guerrillas and other opposition groups.

Following his election in 2002 Alvaro Uribe, backed by substantial US military support, pledged to defeat the FARC within one hundred days. This did not happen, but it effectively ended the tentative political attempts to reach a truce and raised tension throughout the country. Since 2002 Uribe has exploited these tensions to suppress legitimate opposition and to drive through a neoliberal economic policy that is impoverishing large sections of the population. The consequences of Uribe's actions were made graphically clear to us in our meetings over the week.

Abuses of labour rights

We met with the leadership of CUT, the Colombian TUC. Their leader is Tarcisio Mora, a former leader of FECODE, the teachers' union. Much of the leadership of CUT is recruited from the teachers' union: it is the largest and best organised of the Colombian unions, and as such is a target of brutal repression. On the Saturday evening of our visit we got word that the President of the teachers' union in the province of Cordoba had been murdered: gunmen shot him six times, three times in the head, in front of his home. His daughter was seriously injured also in the attack. He is the fourth teacher trade unionist to be assassinated this year.

Most of the killings are attributed to the right wing paramilitary groups that operate with absolute impunity and are closely linked to Uribe's government. Often a government declaration of a person or group being in 'rebellion' or linked to the FARC is the green light to the paramilitaries and there have been numerous scandals linking highly placed government and military personnel with the paramilitaries.

Suppression of the trade unions is closely linked to a neoliberal agenda: where multinational companies wish to invest or acquire Colombian companies they specify that trade union organisation be liquidated before purchase. Our meeting with the agricultural workers union confirmed the collaborative role of the multinationals in Uribe's actions. Farmers are cleared off their land, usually by the paramilitaries, but also by the army, to make way for large multinationals which set up huge plantations of sugar beet and African palm oil to produce biofuels. Colombia has four million displaced persons as a result of these policies the second largest group in the world after Sudan. Meetings with public sector unions and the trade federation representing workers in mining, metals, chemicals, energy and petroleum revealed despoliation of the land and rivers by multinationals such as Drummond, General Motors and several oil companies.

Human Rights abuses

A major human rights crime perpetrated by the regime is that of 'false positives'. This is the practise of abducting young men, often homeless in the cities or poor farmers in the countryside, murdering them and dressing their corpses in FARC uniforms. There is a bonus payable for every FARC guerrilla killed and the practice has been encouraged in the army. Such killings in the countryside is often the prelude to the dead man's family being forced off their land indeed we heard a heartrending account from a grieving mother of the murder of her eighteen year old son and the subsequent flight of the rest of the family to a Bogota shantytown. Those responsible for such killings enjoy total impunity, but the practice has reached scandal proportions and many high ranking military personnel, up to the Defence Minister, have been implicated.

Extrajudicial killings, false imprisonment, torture and disappearances are widespread and are perpetrated with impunity. The evidence we heard from the major human rights organisation in the province of Arauca, and from victims of such abuses, was of criminal violence against community activists carried out free of retribution. Similarly our meetings with human rights lawyers in Bogota confirmed the impunity enjoyed by the paramilitaries and the army in targeting those who speak out or organise opposition to the government.

One of our most moving experiences was a visit to Buen Pastor women's prison in Bogota where we met with women prisoners in the political wing, most of whom have been held for up to three years without charge. These women were living under primitive conditions, without recourse to justice, and yet they displayed a calm courage that was remarkable. Most of them were mothers whose children were being looked after by their extended family. We saw babies and infants who were allowed to stay with their mother until the age of four, thereafter they were taken into care. We also met and spoke with Martin Sandoval, the leader of the Permanent Committee for Human Rights, Colombia's largest human rights group. He has been held since last November in Arauca prison without charge and is an internationally known political prisoner.

Meetings with Government leaders

We met with the Deputy Attorney General, the Minister for Social Protection, the Minister of Defence and had a video conference with President Uribe. This government engagement with us at the highest level reflects the importance of such delegations to the regime. They are acutely aware of the dangers of negative international publicity to their future plans. Currently the government are very keen to secure Free Trade Agreements from US, Canada and the EU. Continuing multinational investment in their neoliberal strategy is dependent on securing these agreements.

In all our discussions with the government we made our belief clear that human and labour abuses were widespread and that we would be campaigning for no FTAs in all our countries until the abuses ended.

We also met with the British ambassador to Colombia and briefed him on the findings of our visit. We took the opportunity of expressing our concerns at British military assistance to the Colombian government. We raised also the issue of UK companies' complicity in human and labour rights abuses.

What did we achieve?

There was no doubt in the minds of the delegation that our visit was useful and timely. It was warmly welcomed by all the non-governmental Colombians we met: they want the widest possible dissemination of Uribe's crimes, and the halting of the planned Free Trade Agreements. They are aware also that contact with international delegations may well provide some individuals and groups with a brief 'umbrella' of protection. Our meetings with trade unionists, human rights activists, opposition politicians and the jailed women, left us in no doubt of the daily courage of the men and women who stand up to the regime.

Our meetings with the victims and bereaved families were harrowing: many of those giving evidence broke down, and most of the delegation shed tears on more than one occasion. The atmosphere under which we worked grew more stressful in the course of our visit. Some of us were photographed by unknown persons at different times on the street; a group of men in Arauca who had been present throughout our visit, made shooting gestures to our bus as we left; and our delegation leader received a threatening phone call.

Some of the delegation were glad to leave Colombia at the end of the week, but the apprehensions we felt gave us only a taste of the desperate conditions under which our fellow trade unionists and their allies live and work daily.

David Drever

April 2009

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