Paramilitaries, Multinationals and Colombian Labor

— Dianne Feeley

SINCE THE COLOMBIAN labor federation, CUT, was founded in 1986 nearly 4,000 trade unionists have been assassinated. Transposed to the United States that would represent 21,000 trade unionists executed! And the number is growing: 1,522 have been killed since 1995, with 129 assassinated in 2000 and 91 so far this year. For every five trade unionists killed in the world, three are Colombians.

In a statement issued by the municipal workers of Cali (SINTRAEMCALI) last May after one of their activists, Carlos Eliecer Prado, was shot dead as he reported for work, “We, Colombian trade unionists, have been targeted by dark forces moving inside the State itself. They seek to silence through assassination, exile or terror those who are against privatization and those who defend human rights.” Eliecer had received numerous death threats from the paramilitary death squad that operates in Cali alongside the army's Third Brigade.

The SINNTRAEMCALI statement explains why the assassinations are growing. In a world where the forces of the market dominate, there is little room for those who defend their economic and social rights. Paramilitary groups have targeted trade unionists -- both leaders and rank-and-file activists -- for “selective assassination.” Teachers, who often act as the voice for their community, have been the hardest hit by the violence, with 418 murdered in the last fifteen years. Yet no one has been found guilty of assassinating a trade unionist.

While fifteen to twenty years ago the military was responsible for seventy percent of all abuses against the civilian population, today eighty percent of the killings are attributed to paramilitaries and five percent to the military. Over the last decade civilian murders in general have doubled, now standing at twenty every day, or 6,000 per year.

The Case of Coca-Cola

On July 20th the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and the International Labor Rights Fund filed suit in a U.S. District Court against Coke, Panamerican Beverages, Inc. and Richard Kirby, an American who owns the Coke bottling plant in Carepa, in the Uraba region. The case was initiated by the union, SINALTRAINAL, which represents food and beverage workers and has long maintained that the company has an open relationship with death squads.

In 1996 alone twenty members were killed or “disappeared.” That year, after Isidro Segundo Gil was shot and killed in front of the Carepa Coke plant as he stood guard duty, paramilitaries with access to the plant threatened employees with death if they did not resign from the union. The most recent assassination was just this past June, when Oscar Dario Soto was gunned down. In the face of intimidation and killings, the union's membership has declined by two-thirds over the last five years.

The Case of Drummond

The execution-style killings of Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Victor Hugo Orcasita, president and vice president of a mining local in northern Cesar province last March, reveal how carefully the paramilitaries target their victims to terrorize the entire work force.

Birmingham-based Drummond Ltd., which began operations at La Loma coal mine in 1995, has closed all but one of its U.S. operations -- laying off 1,700 U.S. coal miners in the last decade. It is Colombia's second largest coal mine, producing ten million tons a year and employing 1200 miners.

On March 12 four company-chartered buses were returning the shift's workers to town. When they passed a toll booth, paramilitaries -- some dressed in military uniforms -- pulled over only the bus with the two union officials aboard. As the miners were taken off the bus and lined up, one of the paramilitaries picked out Locarno and Orcasita, killing the president and taking Orcastia with them. The next day his body, hands tied, was found.

Police stated that it was not clear who was behind the ambush since both the FARC and paramilitaries operate in the region, but in fact anonymous leaflets had been circulating over the past year, equating the union with the guerrillas-clearly the work of death squads. Locarno had written to both the company and the government asking for protection in the face of the escalating threats; both rejected his requests.

Following the murders, the company issued a statement deploring the killings and asserting that they had good relationship with the union. In fact, the SINTRAMINERGETICA local was raising a wide variety of demands, from wages to working conditions, schedules and health care coverage. One of the most important issues was the poor quality of food served; the union also charged that the contractor was a paramilitary sympathizer.

The miners protested the murder of their union leaders with a strike. Within the week the United Steelworkers of America condemned these specific assassinations and organized a fact-finding delegation to express solidarity with the miners and investigate military involvement. USWA President Leo Gerard also issued a statement opposing the amount of military aid Washington is sending to Colombia while trade unionists and civilians were being killed.

While there is no direct trail leading from the paramilitaries to multinationals such as Drummond, it is clear that such corporations are willing to set up operations in a climate of terror against the population. They employ lie detector tests for employees they suspect sympathize with the guerillas, but, according to the union, are willing to employ contractors who are paramilitary sympathizers.

Colombian trade unionists oppose Plan Colombia, which they see as a war plan, and U.S. military aid to Colombia in general. But multinationals such as Drummond Ltd. wholeheartedly support Plan Colombia.

See the Colombian Labor Monitor's website: http://www.prairienet.org/clm for updated information.

from ATC 95 (November/December 2001)

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