COMPOUNDING the ongoing tragedy of Colombia’s embattled trade unionists is the plight of the country itself. Now in the 38th year of a civil war between leftist guerrillas and the government, which claims the lives of more than 3000 people annually, and having recently become the prime target in the United States government’s "War on Drugs," Colombia’s 40 million citizens confront a daily level of violence beyond the comprehension of most Americans. Further exacerbating the situation is the two-tiered class structure of Colombian society, in which the handful of wealthy elites who own most of the land and resources have an equally disproportionate role in shaping governmental policies. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent, with underemployment affecting many more. More than half the country’s inhabitants live in poverty. Finally, there is the role of international financial institutions in Colombia: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is insisting on extensive privatization of state-owned enterprises so the country can pay off its external debt, which means more foreign corporations investing in, and taking profits out of, the Colombian economy, plunging it further into poverty.
For decades, leftist guerrillas such as the ELN and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), have tried to loosen the wealthy landowners’ stranglehold on Colombia’s economic life. Heavily influenced by Marxism’s revolutionary ideals and rhetoric, the guerrillas were committed to a program of wealth and land redistribution. They resorted to kidnapping rich landowners and charging ransoms, as well as levying taxes on local businessmen’s commerce, to fund their operations. By the mid 1980s, the ranchers, landowners, and drug barons who were frequent targets of the guerrillas decided to fund a private army of vigilantes to defend themselves, giving rise to the paramilitary movement in Colombia. For several years, the Colombian Armed Forces openly trained, equipped, and operated alongside the paramilitaries. Together, they waged war not only on the guerrillas, but on anyone suspected of supporting them, which led to widespread atrocities. Ultimately, in 1989, the Colombian government, facing international condemnation because of the paramilitaries’ escalating human-rights violations, declared them to be illegal.
Throughout the 1990s, profits from the drug trade (derived mostly from the sale of cocaine) fueled the growth of both the paramilitaries and the guerrillas. The paramilitaries also benefited from US military aid to the Colombian government, which they accessed through their military connections. Despite the 1989 ruling against the right-wing death squads, they continued to collude with the Colombian Armed Forces against the guerrilla insurgency. In reality, far from shunning the paramilitaries, the military simply shifted its dirty work — the assassination of trade unionists, human-rights workers, outspoken professors, radical students, or anyone who questioned the status quo — to the paramilitaries. According to Andrew Miller, the former advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA, "these missions have been outsourced to paramilitary groups that operate in heavily militarized areas and coordinate their operations with the army. The proportion of abuses directly attributable to the armed forces has declined in recent years, while abuses by their paramilitary allies have escalated dramatically." Although Colombia consistently had the worst human-rights record in the hemisphere, military aid continued to flow from the US — with a sudden and dramatic shift toward the end of the decade.
The US government spent close to a billion dollars in the last two years arming and training the Colombian Armed Forces, purportedly to stem the flow of cocaine and heroin into the US, which consumes more than 90 percent of Colombia’s illicit drugs. "Plan Colombia," signed into law by President Clinton on January 11, 2000, is a military-aid package that made Colombia the third-largest recipient of American military aid on the planet, behind Israel and Egypt. At the time of its proposal, human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch opposed the plan because of the high incidence of human-rights abuses by members of the Colombian military, in addition to their continuing involvement with the paramilitaries. But lawmakers faced intense lobbying pressure by corporations with interests in Colombia, including weapons manufacturers and oil and coal companies. Congress passed the plan, and Clinton waived the human-rights conditions that would normally have blocked the aid, citing "national-security interests." Already, the Colombian military has received $816 million in the form of arms, training, and helicopters to fight the "War on Drugs." Another $399 million was approved for this fiscal year, with the Bush administration broadening "Plan Colombia" into the "Andean Regional Initiative."
Colombian labor leaders and their allies look askance at the US government’s claim that the money flowing to Colombia is for drug interdiction. They foresee the relentless militarization of their country’s armed conflict resulting in a military state that will, conveniently enough, impose the kind of stability foreign investors require, and set an example for those who might otherwise balk at Washington’s economic agenda for the region. They claim that transnational corporations, whose lawyers drafted the "free-trade agreements" (such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas) for much of Latin America with the countries’ finance ministers, want to eliminate organized labor’s influence so they can extract maximum profits. William Mendoza, a leader in Colombia’s food and beverage workers’ union, SINALTRAINAL, puts it bluntly: "The motivation behind Plan Colombia is for the US to assure the best control of these countries and drown people in their own blood if they attempt to resist." Mendoza’s union has joined the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund in a federal lawsuit against one of the US’s best-known corporations, Coca-Cola, charging it and two Colombian subsidiaries with complicity in the murder of union leader Isidro Segundo Gil.
On December 5, 1996, Gil, a member of his union’s executive board, was shot down by paramilitaries at the entrance to a Coke bottling plant in Carepa. The union was involved in contract negotiations at the time, and the following day, the AUC reappeared and demanded that all union members resign. They also destroyed the workers’ union hall, which was subsequently rebuilt and occupied by the paramilitaries. Mendoza, who is the human-rights chair of SINALTRAINAL, says that the US embassy and Coke’s headquarters in both Colombia and the US were informed about the incident. To date, however, no formal charges have been brought in the killings. "Unfortunately," he explains, "impunity in this country is 100 percent." Labor leaders are commonly assassinated in broad daylight, says Mendoza, who himself lives under threat of death by the paramilitaries: "The state says nothing about the killing of union leaders. It’s out in the open, the link between the paramilitaries and the military authorities." Coke has denied the charges, and Mendoza says that the company has countersued the workers.
Charges of collusion with Colombia’s right-wing death squads have also been leveled at the Alabama-based Drummond Coal Company. At a January 21, 2002, meeting with the president of the energy-workers union FUNTRAENERGETICA, more allegations of corporations’ targeting unionists came to light. The union’s leader, who does not want to be identified by name, says that paramilitaries took part in the 2001 assassinations of three union leaders, and that the company did nothing to respond to workers’ repeated requests for protection. The union leaders were involved in negotiations at the time. The story is depressingly familiar. In March, Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Victor Hugo Orcasita, the president and vice-president of the coal-miners union SINTRAMIENERGETICA, were traveling by bus from their jobs at the Drummond mine in La Loma. The bus was stopped by a group of armed men, who searched the passengers until they found Locarno and Orcasita, who were promptly removed from the bus. Locarno was shot immediately in the face, and Orcasita was taken away. He was later found dead, and his body showed signs of torture. "The paramilitaries attack any worker who speaks out against what the owners want," the unionist says. "Anyone who dares to speak out, asks for social justice, or refuses to conform is declared a military target." Six months later, the president who succeeded Locarno, Gustavo Soler, was also killed by paramilitaries. No charges have been brought in the murders.