Mayday Colombia

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 grave.

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 database.

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 torture imaginable.

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 basis.

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 the insurgency."

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 back. "

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.

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