1999 murder of trade unionist declared ‘crime against humanity’

As a trade unionist, José Alfonso Poveda was committed to defending the rights of Colombian workers. As a political activist, he fought to improve social conditions in marginalised communities. Like thousands of others like him, José paid the ultimate price for his beliefs. Now, Colombia’s Attorney General has ruled his murder a ‘crime against humanity’ owing to José Poveda being targeted over his trade unionism and political activity.

At the time of his death, José Poveda was a member of both the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) and the left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) political party. He was also a prominent trade unionist, as co-founder of the Agricultural Trade Union Confederation and senior official in the National Federation of Agricultural Collectives (FENACOA).

José Poveda was shot dead on 17 February 1999, in an attack which injured a companion. His wife Tulia Vargas was alongside him but unhurt. According to the Attorney General’s ruling, José’s ‘condition of agrarian activism, trade unionism and political militancy were the motives for his murder’. It was the final act in a long campaign of aggression towards José that included threats to his family, which eventually forced them to leave their home, and murders of colleagues.

The UP was founded in 1985 following a peace process between the government of Belisario Betancurt and the FARC. After the party made some electoral gains, it was subjected to a violent campaign by paramilitaries and state security forces, often working in tandem, that saw around 5,000 UP members and supporters killed during the 1980s and 1990s. Widely regarded in Colombia as a ‘political genocide’, the extermination of the UP is one of the principle cases under investigation by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the truth and justice component of the 2016 peace agreement.

‘The murder was not an isolated act, but one more in a systematic plan against those people who exercised active political and social leadership’, said the ruling. It also found that the state’s failure to grant protective measures to José, despite the known risks he faced, was a determining factor in his killing.