Trade Unionists, Academics, Students and Human Rights Defenders in Barranquilla Threatened

News from Colombia | on: Monday, 11 May 2009

Paramilitaries in Colombia's fourth largest city have been issuing constant death threats against civil society activists since January say human rights groups. Rather than taking steps to protect those in danger, the security forces in the city of Barranquilla have instead increased the pressure by harassing or arbitrarily detaining many of those on the receiving end of the threats.

Students at the Industrial University of Santander (UIS), the largest university in the city, which is on Colombia's northern coast, were the first to draw attention to the issue when they reported on a January 10th incident which saw student union leader and electronics engineering student, Edwin Abril, followed to his home and threatened by unidentified men. This was followed by a February 13th paramilitary death threat sent to the UIS in which several student leaders, academics, human rights activists and trade unionists were listed by name and declared to be 'military objectives'.

The written threat praised Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for his hardline security policies and said that the paramilitaries intended to 'exterminate' certain organisations including SINTRAUNICOL, the union representing workers at the UIS. The threat also accused trade union leaders David Florez and Cesar Plazas of being guerrilla commanders and said that they would be 'cleansed'.

Days later another threat, this time signed by the 'Black Eagles' paramilitary death squad, arrived at the SINTRAUNICOL offices in Barranquilla. It listed union president Alvaro Nunez, union treasurer Ivan Castellanos, union general secretary Alvaro Villamizar, and Jose Delgado, Sandra Manrique and Javier Maldonado, all members of the union's negotiationg committee, to be "terrorists" who would all be executed if they did not leave the city immediately. Five other SINTRAUNICOL activists along with Rodrigo Torres, the president of the Association of UIS Professors and 26 student activists at the university were also listed in the threat as were the head of the university's philosophy department, Pedro Garcia, and the head of the cinematography department, Helena Stachenko.

On March 13th the threats became reality after student union leader Hernan Ricardo Zuniga was attacked at 8.30 in the morning by unidentified men as he walked through the city on his way to classes. He survived the incident as did SINTRAUNICOL president Alvaro Nunez when strange men came to his home on the morning of March 24th looking for him. The union leader stayed in doors and called the police though they never arrived and the men were able to hang around outside his house for nearly three hours waiting for him.

April 16th saw unidentified men return to the house of Mr Nunez whilst on April 18th his union colleague, SINTRAUNICOL activist Beatriz Abril, was arbitrarily detained by police officers one of whom allegedly accused her of being a guerrilla sympathiser. Later in the month a tape recording of a phone conversation between the UIS rector Jaime Albaerto Camacho and a regional paramilitary boss known as 'Felix' was leaked to the regional press in which the paramilitary asked Mr Camacho for a list "of the students and professors who have leftwing ideas" so that he could initiate a "death plan".

The month of May, say human rights groups, have seen the threats intensify with an upsurge both in harassment and arbitrary detentions around May 1st as unions and student groups prepared to take part in the annual May Day march through the city. Both before and during the march several UIS students, including Pedro Libardo Blanco Correa, Javier Garcia, Javier Celis and Jose Manuel Garcia were arrested by police with the latter also being badly beaten in the back of a police truck. All were also verbally abused and photographed causing widespread panic as such photos regularly end up in the hands of paramilitary assassins.

May 5th saw yet another paramilitary death threat, this time made against Martha Dias and Maribel Figueroa, the leader and treasurer respectively of the public sector workers trade union in the city ASTDEMP. Later the same day another threat, also signed by the 'Black Eagles', was left on the computer keyboard of union activist Gladys Sofia Parada, an employee of the municipal authorities in Barranquilla. The union has been the target of numerous threats since they highlighted the involvement of city mayor Orlando Mendoza Arenas in a corruption scandal involving both large sums of money and local paramilitary commanders.

May 10th saw UIS law professor Javier Alejandro Acevedo threatened when two unidentified persons arrived at the block of flats where he lived brandishing a gun. After threatening the porter of the block the two individuals, who had allegedly also been seen a month earlier hanging around the building, left the area on a motorbike but said that they would be returning for Mr Acevedo whose name has appeared on several paramilitary death lists since 2006.

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