From the tenth-floor balcony of our hotel in Buenaventura, we sit with community leader Miguel Duarte and watch as the sunset over the Pacific Ocean streaks the sky with peach and mauve before fading to a shroud of lavender-gray and darkness. Below us, teenage girls chase a soccer ball. A few hundred yards away, a patch of the island is covered with tree tops like the heads of broccoli. “Take a photo of that island,” says Duarte, pointing at the tree line. “There are thousands of dead bodies buried on it.”
“We need a commission from the Attorney General’s office to count the bodies,” he continues. “The island is controlled by paramilitaries.”
The violence in Buenaventura is staggering, yet reliable statistics are hard to attain: official documentation is lacking and it’s left to community leaders, like 18-year-old Jesús, to try to compile the data independently. At our meeting, he pulls out his notebook and begins reading off his handwritten list of victims from a recent massacre. He gets to the end of his list, glances up, and says, “Children were cut up and heads were found in barrios Santa Monica and Campo Alegro. Last night Alberto’s cousin was killed in a confrontation. That one made the newspaper.”
According to a report issued in January 2014, the city sees two-to-three murders and three-to-six forced disappearances daily. In November 2013 alone, fighting between different armed groups displaced 2,500 families in Buenaventura.
“We’re convinced of one thing,” says Duarte. “This pressure is so that people leave.”
On the heels of shoot-outs in waterfront neighborhoods, city officials arrive and ask residents if they’re ready to sign documents in which they agree to vacate the zone. On February 5 and 6, local security forces staged an elaborately orchestrated tsunami drill for neighborhoods near the port, with armed men blocking off streets and redirecting traffic into the night. According to Colombian Process of Black Communities (PCN), the exercise was yet another effort to brainwash Buenaventura’s Bajamar residents into believing that it’s not safe to live in the area and that they should be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
Many point out that Buenaventura is dangerous for people who live in neighborhoods slated for commercial development but that, paradoxically, these same areas are safe for tourists. Below our hotel, a seafood fusion-sushi bar does slow business just yards from a neighborhood where armed groups recently did battle.
It’s Friday night in this commerce town, and clubs cater to weekend carousers with pockets full of pesos. Against a backdrop of giraffe-like cranes, half-built high-rises sprouting rebar, and a balmy breeze dispersing salsa beats, Duarte explains that 15 or 20 years ago, people began to talk about megaprojects in the region: port expansion, a cargo terminal, a tourist boardwalk, and an international airport in nearby Cali. Those conversations coincided with the beginning of the market liberalization process, as the port changed from public to private ownership.
Over the past 15 years, as the armed conflict arrived to nearby rural areas, many residents fled their farming communities at the outskirts of Buenaventura and settled in ocean-front neighborhoods near the city center, joining communities of Afro-Colombians who had arrived generations ago. In 2005, the FARC and Colombian military battled in Buenaventura. In 2006, paramilitaries entered the urban zone to protect businesses and terrorize the local population.
The first interurban displacement in Buenaventura—in which people fled from one neighborhood to another within the city—was in 2009. Today, ground zero for violent displacement coincides perfectly with zones marked for port expansion, a coal warehouse, a massive container storage area, and a tourist promenade. The violence, PCN states, is “part of the war strategy to control territory and clean out the zone to bring in projects.”
Residents in vulnerable neighborhoods are not opposed to the city’s economic growth, per se. But many feel that projects should benefit all people in the area, not bring prosperity to few while forcing misery on most.
That’s what Remedios’ husband, Eduardo believed. Their home in Caucana, about 45 minutes from the port, is along the road being widened to facilitate port expansion and accompanying projects in order to make Buenaventura competitive for Free Trade Agreement projects.
The old road is narrow, windy, and unpaved, meaning that it currently takes a truck seven or eight hours to make the trip from Buenaventura to Bugalagrande, a town along the Pan-American Highway. The new road will reduce the journey to about an hour.
Eduardo opposed the road expansion through their community because small children play there, and the project was contaminating their air and bad for people’s health. Remedios said, “He’d been looking to strengthen the community. He didn’t want to leave people in misery.” He’d been advocating for the community’s right to Free Prior and Informed Consent for new projects on their land guaranteed under Law 70, or the “Law of Black Communities.”
One morning Eduardo got a call that warned him he’d be killed if he ran in upcoming community council elections. For months he lived under the dark cloud of death threats, and on February 23, 2013, he was murdered. A year later, despite the efforts of his wife and other community members to seek justice, the government has made no progress in the investigation of his death.
“It has left me desperate, my kids too. They’re struggling at school. They don’t remember their vowels, just sleep, play, fight, scream….My children want to know why their father was murdered. They’re small, thinking bad thoughts, seeking vengeance. I’m asking for help because I don’t want my kids to become bad people.”
While we are in Buenaventura, a death threat is circulated, naming as military targets indigenous groups, campesinos, Marcha Patriotica members, protestors who block roads, and “guerilla-defending” NGOs—the name often used by paramilitaries to refer to NGOs that work on human rights issues.
Back on the tenth-floor balcony, a man whose community is surrounded by illegal armed groups looks out over the port, past the island of dead bodies, to the green lights blinking at the edge of the bay. He says, “If we don’t act quickly in Buenaventura, there will be more deaths.”
Margaret Boehme is a member of the Witness for Peace Colombia team based in Bogotá.
Obama Poised to Give Presidential Seal of Approval to Gross Labor Rights Violations in Colombia
On November 9, 2011, the family of Juan Carlos Galvis – a prominent union leader with Sinaltrainal and personal friend of ours – was subjected to a violent home invasion by two presumed paramilitaries. The intruders entered the Galvis home while Juan Carlos and his son were away and assaulted his wife, Mary, and his two daughters, Jackeline and Mayra. They grabbed Mayra, a child with Downs Syndrome, and put a gun to her head, threatening to kill her if Mary did not tell them the whereabouts of Juan Carlos and his son. They then bound and gagged Mary and Jackeline, again asking them to say where Juan Carlos and his son were. The assailants then proceeded to spray paint Mary and Juan’s faces on a wedding photo the family had posted on the wall. Before leaving the home, they stole two laptops, some USB memory drives, documents, and trashed the house. The traumatic attack left Mayra in shock for days and unable to speak.
The family was forced to flee to another town where they are now hiding. Their fears are well founded. Two of Juan Carlos’ Sinaltrainal colleagues, John Fredy Carmona Bermudez and Luis Medardo Prens Vallejo, were killed in recent months.
All in all, 30 unionists were killed in Colombia last year. The National Labor School (ENS) reports that 4 have already been killed this year, and other trade union movements have reported additional murders (e.g., Justice for Colombia has reported 6). Such killings have made Colombia, where around 3,000 unionists have been killed since 1986, the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, and if the assassination rate this year continues as it has thus far, Colombia will most certainly retain this notorious distinction.
Meanwhile, the Colombian government has done nothing effective to prosecute those responsible for such anti-union violence, with the UN recently reporting that Colombia’s rate of impunity for such crimes remains at 95% – meaning that only 5% of the union killings have ever been successfully prosecuted.
It was these two factors – the unprecedented rate of union killings and the high rate of impunity for these killings – that led Barack Obama in 2008 to declare in his third debate with John McCain that he opposed the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
While being a trade unionist in Colombia is dangerous, those that are unionists are the few that can more freely organize. Under the Alvaro Uribe Velez Administration the “associative labor cooperatives” (CTAs) model proliferated throughout Colombia. This union-busting model that precludes direct contracts between workers and companies gravely debilitates working conditions, salaries, and occupational safety protections. Workers have risked losing their meager livelihoods by holding stoppages to obtain direct contracts that are more likely to guarantee their basic labor rights.
In April 2011, Presidents Obama and Santos presented a Labor Action Plan designed to address anti-union violence, prosecute anti-union crimes, do away with labor inter-mediation, and improve conditions for workers in the port, sugar, oil palm, and other sectors. Since the LAP was signed, Colombia has played the game of appearing to comply with the LAP while at the same time undermining its purpose. It has met surface requirements like setting up the Labor Ministry, passing legislation, and fining abusive companies.
While the number of trade unionists killed has gone down (and of course, as Father Javier Giraldo opined some time ago, there are indeed many less unionists to kill), the security climate and death threats against them have not changed. This leaves the possibility that the number of murders and attacks could flare up once the FTA moves forward. The murder of trade unionists and labor activists is often spun to be unrelated to their labor rights activities—robbery, jealous lovers or links to narcotrafficking are the reasons used to whitewash the murders. For example, Hernan Dario, a lawyer who represented the largest public sector union in Valle del Cauca (Sintraemcali) and several labor activists in the sugarcane sector, was murdered. His name was subsequently dragged through the mud based on unsubstantiated allegations linking him to drug dealers. This tactic was utilized in order to create an environment of confusion and impede actions for justice in this case.
Last year, Colombia passed a law that supposedly banned CTAs, yet the reality is that this only restricts them by name since other forms of labor inter-mediation, including the Simplified Stock Companies, shell companies, and supposed “union contracts,” have replaced them. In the sugar and port sectors, leaders of work stoppages and those affiliated to trade unions are rarely rehired through these new contracts. The Ministry of Labor and the labor inspectors designated by the LAP are not effectively intervening to remedy these situations. Over 70 Afro-Colombian port workers in Turbo who attempted to form a union in October 2011 have been fired. Those workers were given an ultimatum—sign a letter stating they will not affiliate with a trade union or enjoy unemployment.
The Ministry is not even intervening to implement the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) recommendations as mandated by the Labor Action Plan. The case of 51 fired public sector workers of EMCALI is just one of many examples. Rather than implement the ILO’s March 2012 recommendations to rehire the workers, authorities proceeded to evict the workers who held a hunger strike in Cali last week. These victims of Colombia’s unjust labor practices, all of whom have been unemployed since 2004 since they were blacklisted for standing up for labor rights, are not even permitted to protest.
Some of the workers who would most benefit from effective implementation of the Labor Action Plan are Afro-Colombians. Most Afro-Colombian workers, who make up an estimated 25% of Colombia’s population and a disproportionate number of the country’s over 5.2 million internally displaced, work in sectors where labor rights standards are weakest. As such, many are not able to freely exercise their right to unionize, and if they try to do so face death threats or impoverishment. Many Afro-Colombian workers describe their situation as “modern day slavery.”
Afro-Colombian dockworkers in Buenaventura, a key port for the FTA, work in one of Colombia’s most abusive environments. In this port, Afro-Colombians come to work in hazardous conditions for 24 to 48 hours straight, often sleeping on the containers. The demanding environment obligates them to stay inside the port complex for an entire week without the possibility to return home. Healthcare is often reserved for the more privileged individuals working in offices, and workers who are hurt or disabled are often fired. Those attempting to organize are threatened or denied employment. It took a work stoppage in January 2012 for some of these workers to receive direct contracts. The majority of port workers continue to be employed through intermediaries, and those with the direct contracts have low salaries and are prohibited from unionizing. Only today, after months of pressure, has the Ministry of Labor opened up an investigation into some of these abuses.
Still, despite continued anti-union violence, the high rate of impunity, serious impediments to union organizing, and the dire conditions faced by workers, President Obama is now poised to announce at the Summit of the Americas that Colombia has complied with the Labor Action Plan. Working conditions and protection for trade unionists in Colombia do not reflect the U.S. government’s evaluation of the Labor Action Plan. If Obama goes ahead with his plans in Cartagena to green light the FTA, Colombian and U.S. workers will lose their last bit of leverage to stem the tide of anti-union violence and defend the rights of Colombia’s most vulnerable populations.
Daniel Kovalik is general counsel of the United Steelworkers.
Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli and Anthony Dest work for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
- Colombia Remains Violent for Trade Unionists, Even After US Free Trade Deal (news.firedoglake.com)
- Why Campaigning for Democrats Cripples Unions (alethonews.wordpress.com)