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Colombia’s ‘dirty war’
Right-wing terror squads torture and kill union workers and activists

BARRANCABERMEJA, DEPARTMENT OF SANTANDER, COLOMBIA — When his body was recovered, it was clear that Aury Sara Marrugo spent his last hours alive in agony. His gums had been butchered. A blowtorch had been used to sear the flesh under his arms and the soles of his feet. Over 70 small incisions were found on his corpse, and strong acid had been applied to his abdomen. At some point during the savagery, a single bullet was fired at close range into the middle of his face, ending his misery. Sara had been "disappeared" on November 30, 2001. His remains, and the grisly warning they were designed to convey to his colleagues, turned up the following week.

Sara drew his final, tortured breaths in the town of Cartagena, on the northwest coast of Colombia. His executioners, members of a right-wing paramilitary group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), wanted his fate to be public knowledge. According to a statement by the AUC, Sara was executed because he was thought to be a member of one of Colombia’s armed opposition groups, the National Liberation Army, or Ejˇrcito de Liberaci—n Nacional (ELN). Others familiar with the paramilitaries and their role in Colombia’s long-running civil war point to a more likely explanation for Sara’s murder. He was president of Uni—n Sindical Obrera (USO) — the Oil Workers’ Trade Union, Cartagena Section — and was therefore guilty of a crime that cost nearly 170 Colombian men and women their lives last year: he was a trade unionist.

Since 1985, over 3800 union workers and leaders have been assassinated in Colombia, making it by far the most dangerous place on earth to fight for workers’ rights. In 2001, according to the United Workers’ Central, or Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), the country’s 600,000-member central trade union, there were 169 assassinations of union workers, 30 more attempted assassinations, 79 "disappeared" or kidnapped, and over 400 reports of threats and intimidations. And, as of the third week in January, this year shows every indication of keeping pace with 2001’s horrific toll: already there have been six assassinations, including Maria Ropero, president of the Union of Community Mothers, who was shot 13 times. According to human-rights advocates at Amnesty International, in Colombia "the security and armed forces, as well as their paramilitary allies, often accuse trade unionists of being guerrilla sympathizers or auxiliaries." This makes them "military targets."

The leaders of Colombia’s labor unions believe they are being targeted because they openly denounce the violence and unjust distribution of wealth that takes such a heavy toll on the majority of their country’s population. As the most prominent members of Colombian civil society, trade unionists — especially representatives of the threatened public sector — find themselves at the point where four very powerful vectors meet. First, there are North American and European transnational corporations, which look to take advantage of Colombia’s vast natural resources and growing, low-wage labor pool. Second, there is the Colombian government, including the armed forces and national police, whose stability is threatened by the civil war, and whose stated goals are to eliminate the leftist guerrillas and enter the global economy. Third, there is the US government, which has started to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to the Colombian military, ostensibly to fight the "War on Drugs," but whose desire to protect US-based corporations operating abroad is well-known. And, last, there are the paramilitaries, a group whose various links to the country’s elites, the transnational corporations, the Colombian military, and, by extension, the US government are a matter of record. Traditionally, their primary function has been to perform the dirty work of torturing and killing Colombians like Aury Sara.

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Issue Date: February 14 - 21, 2002
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