98 Unionists Killed in Colombia

The following article by Alfredo Castro is reprinted from ANNCOL (6/26/02).

According to the CUT national trade union federation in Colombia, so far this year 98 of their activists have been either assassinated or "disappeared" by rightwing death squad units. The federation, along with individual unions and human rights organisations in Colombia are placing the blame for the murders firmly at the door of the Colombian government whom, they say, are guilty of promoting the violence against the union movement.

One of the most recent attacks occurred on June 18th when Cesar Blanco Moreno, the leader of the USO oil workers union in the city of Bucaramanga, was shot and killed by army death squad gunmen. In an urgent communiqué the same day the national executive of the USO said that his murder was "another irrefutable example of the permissive attitude of the State, because our comrade had received death threats before and the authorities were fully aware of this. In addition there has been the repeated declaration by the paramilitaries for more than a month threatening to assassinate trade union and popular leaders in Bucaramanga."

The USO, who called a 48-hour national production strike in protest at the murder, went on to say, "We do not want expressions of condolence from a government during whose mandate assassinations of trade union leaders have increased astronomically. We do not want promises of more exhaustive investigations which end in a shroud of impunity as they did in the cases of Aury Sara, William Walls and Alexander Cardona and the many other assassinated comrades. We demand that Cesar's killers are punished and that the crimes against popular leaders are stopped."

Two days before the killing of Cesar Blanco paramilitaries also attempted to kill Luis Enrique Imbachi, the acting president of the SINTRAEMCALI municipal workers union in the city of Cali. According to a statement issued by the union and co-signed by 17 other trade unions, NGOs and student organisations it is obvious that it is members of the police and army that are behind the constant attacks on popular activists in Cali. The document announced that the organisations would "hold the Colombian Government responsible for any attempt against the integrity of leaders, trade unionists and human right workers."

Other assassinations of unionists this month that have been blamed on forces working for the Colombian state include:

a) On June 20th in the city of Barrancabermeja one of the leaders of the HOCAR trade union that represents workers in the hotel and restaurant industry, Helio Rodriguez Ruiz, was shot and killed by paramilitary hit men as he left his work. Rodriguez was also an active human rights and community activist.

b) Also on June 20th paramilitaries shot and killed Luis Enrique Coiran as he stood with his son in front of their home in the municipality of Tame in Arauca department. He was the president of the municipal branch of the ANTHOC trade union representing workers in the health sector.

c) On June 12th Elias Mejia Villareal was killed in the town of Puerto Wilches in Santander department when several paramilitaries, allegedly including two serving soldiers, arrived at his home and shot him. He was the leader of the Palm Oil Workers Union (SINTRAPALMA) in the region and had been leading a strike of local workers since earlier this year. Later the same day the paramilitary unit went to the home of Roberto Rodriguez, the general secretary of the union, with the intention of also assassinating him. Fortunately Rodriguez was out at the time although the paramilitaries left a note saying that they would execute him if he did not leave the region immediately. Since the union has been on strike two other local leaders have been killed in an effort to break the strike and force the workers to return to work.

d) On June 5th paramilitaries forced their way into the home of John Jairo Alvarez Cardona a national leader of the textile workers union (SINTRATEXTIL) in the municipality of Rionegro in Antioquia department. The union leader was eating when the paramilitaries arrived and they dragged him on to the front patio where they shot him repeatedly in front of his wife and children. He died of his injuries a few hours later.

As is usual when popular activists are killed in Colombia no one has been arrested in any of the above cases.