by Nick Dearden
Z magazine, July/August 2003
Despite the horrors that face those fighting
for better societies across the world, there are few countries
on earth where trade union leaders can only access their offices
by climbing out of bulletproof jeeps, surrounded by bodyguards
holding semi-automatic weapons, to walk through a metal room equipped
with electronic steel gates, and finally start work in a bomb
proof office. This is not a description of a poverty-stricken
central African state or a banana republic. This is one of Latin
America's oldest "democracies." This is a country with
some of the most desirable commodities and richest soils in the
world. This is Colombia.
One teacher or lecturer has been killed
every week in Colombia this year-from 27 teachers assassinated
in 1999 to 83 murdered in 2002. This makes organizing in FECODE
-Colombia's biggest union-virtually impossible in many areas of
the country. Ninety-five percent of these abuses are carried out
by paramilitary death squads-extreme right-wing armed militias,
which have documented links to the official armed forces and the
authorities. A special paramilitary group called Death to Trade
Unionists has been established. Why does it happen? "Because
they know they can get away with it," one victim's relative
told us. Impunity from prosecution is the norm in Colombia.
It is difficult to get beyond the idea
that this terror applies to a handful of radical union leaders
who are in total opposition to the government. For every case
of assassination, there are hundreds of cases of displacement-teachers
fleeing their homes on pain of death. One high school social sciences
teacher from Risaralda Department, near the city of Peirera, received
a condolence card inviting her to her own funeral. This was followed
by phone calls, letters, and people following her home. She knows
of teachers being shot in front of their pupils.
Another teacher worked in a school outside
Bogota for 23 years. Persecution began 15 years ago. Her house
was raided many times. Like all persecuted trade unionists, she
is accused of being a guerrilla-a tactic that normally means you
are being set up for "cleansing" operations. Her two
teenage daughters were also targeted. She told us how her husband
was kidnapped and then killed by paramilitaries. Her daughters
were not even able to go to the cemetery to see their father's
Teachers and lecturers are not the only
members of society targeted-it also applies to progressive lawyers,
priests, students, any form of trade unionist, or just small farmers
who happen to live in the wrong area, usually near an oil pipeline.
The Department of Arauca has been turned into a militarized zone
by the government-what one teacher described as a "laboratory
for war." In the first 8 months of militarization, 3,000
have been arrested, there have been 1,300 raids on people's houses,
and 90,000 people have had their details entered into a security
Disappearances are even more effective
instruments of terror and oppression than assassinations. In the
past five years 5,000 people have "disappeared" at the
hands of paramilitaries. Most of the disappeared are eventually
found dead-their bodies bearing the marks of the most horrific
The government's response is that these
are all lies-the disappeared have run off to the guerrillas, been
kidnapped, or have run away with their lovers. It is difficult
to imagine a more cold-hearted response to the disappearance of
a family member, but it is a response that enables the government
to stand up to its responsibilities under international law.
Students are also prime targets. Chalk
outlines of bodies are drawn on the ground at the entrance to
the National University in Bogota, representing students assassinated
and disappeared by the terror infrastructure over the last ten
years. In a particularly worrying development, students at the
University of Altantico in Antioquia were assassinated in front
of a classroom in which they were being taught.
"The student movement has been historically
affected by violence, but in the 1990s repression started getting
really severe," a group of law students at the National University
explained, "and it is directly related to resistance within
the small number of public universities against privatization
and militarization of the university system. "
In Cucuta, paramilitaries imposed a curfew
on young people. Night school students have given up their courses
in fear. Women students had been banned from wearing tight tops
and jeans. Punishment was meted out by acid being thrown at the
offending students or a knife being used to cut the bare skin
on their stomach.
Universities are also being incorporated
into President Uribe's "informer network." Reminiscent
of policies pursued in what are normally described as police states,
Uribe is aiming to build a million-person network of eyes and
ears for the Colombian state. This is being pursued with particular
vigor on campuses where we were told "there's always someone
ready to point out student leaders." In the last 5 years
between 60 and 70 student leaders have been disappeared.
These horrors cannot be seen in isolation
from the economic policies of the government. The government has
signed a development package with the IMF, which will increase
the tax burden on the poorest while aimed at the liquidation of
social security. Private companies are being brought into the
education sector and an economic policy is underway which aims
to privatize higher education. Teacher numbers have fallen from
312,000 to 280,000. Recruitment is frozen- when teachers leave
their jobs for whatever reason they're not replaced. Many teachers
who have retained jobs have had their contracts changed from full-time,
permanent employment to temporary contracts. In 1990 around 90
percent of university workers were employed on permanent contracts.
This has now fallen to around 10 percent. The new temporary contracts
are revocable at a moment's notice without the need for a reason.
The mass media is controlled by a tiny
handful of people and either ignores or distorts the conflict
to make it appear that the main human rights issue in the country
is the kidnapping of the very rich by left-wing guerrilla groups.
Former trade union leader, now congressperson,
Wilson Borjca, who walks with a limp from when he narrowly escaped
an attempt on his life, sums up the situation in one phrase "Colombians
are so poor because Colombia is so rich." Colombia possesses
16 of the world's 22 most desirable resources, most notably oil
and gold. Yet just over 1 percent of the population owns 58 percent
of the land while shanty towns rapidly expanding to give very
basic shelter to Colombia's 2 million displaced people-13 million
people earn less than $40 a month, 3.5 million children are outside
education, and half of the country is unable to access health
care. Meanwhile increasing amounts of money are poured into paying
off the national debt and building the security forces.
Uribe is desperate to sign the Free Trade
Area of the Americas (ALCA), which will create the world's largest
single market and the effect of which will be to solidify Latin
America's place as a source of cheap raw materials, labor, and
markets. Already the world trading system has seen Colombia's
food imports increase from 1 million tons in 1990 to 8 million
tons today. A country of incredibly rich soil, where crops thrive,
now imports basic food stuffs, including corn due to unfair competition.
While U.S. agricultural subsidies will be slowly phased out after
2005, Borjca fears that by that time Colombians will already have
lost their ability to compete, as mega-corporations buy up the
country from bankrupt small farmers.
In Aguablanca outside Cali, families live
cooped up, the beds are orange crates if they can't find anything
better, with a small piece of polythene covering their "home."
Broken glass litters the ground where children play in bare feet-many
of them have sores and other signs of infection. There are no
lights and no heat. There is a single tap to serve 750 families.
The government's reaction to these desperate people was seen in
March 2003 when security forces demolished the settlement, including
all the private possessions that the destitute had managed to
bring with them. With no other option, the residents built the
slum again and continue to be harassed by the police on a regular
Colombia is now the biggest recipient
of U.S. military assistance outside Israel and Egypt and their
equipment is clearly not only being used to fight the "war
on drugs," which provided the initial pretext for the stepped
up aid. Helicopters have been firing shells into densely packed
neighborhoods. It is reported that, in one recent incident, 20
civilians were killed and no guerrillas. It appears to be a strategy
well known from the Vietnam War: drain the water and you kill
the fish. The fish are the guerrillas, the water the unfortunate.
So far Uribe's state of internal unrest has unleashed a huge wave
of raids, security measures, and violence.
In this new security regime everyone it
seems is fair game. Despite living in a "democratic"
country, no one we spoke to felt they had any rights. "The
government doesn't need to give us a reason for arrests"
one woman told us "they justify everything by talking about
Trade union reports from Colombia read
like a horror story. "The most dangerous country in the world
to be a journalist/oil workers/public service workers/teacher/
lecturer." All trade unionists we spoke to believed "there
are even more dark times ahead. "
Despite the most dramatic frontal assault
on social organization, Colombians refuse to have bonds of society
broken. Trade unions, under attack in their own right, become
social movements, protecting not just their own members, but
fighting poverty at the same time. Communities
build up around displacement and disappearance and fear and terror,
summed up in the slogan "kill 1 of us and 10 more will fight
It is not just the U.S. pouring "security
assistance" into Colombia. The UK, which refers to Colombia
as "one of Latin America's oldest democracy"-has excellent
relations with Uribe's government-"a president doing his
best in a very difficult situation to restore order in his country.
Fascism is not a word that should be used
lightly, but it is a term we heard again and again to describe
the direction of President Uribe's policies. Hope can only be
pushed so far and it's rapidly running out for Colombia. They
look to our solidarity as a last defense against the horror their
country has become.
Nick Dearden is an activist with War on
Want and recently returned from a trade union trip to Colombia.