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Colombia: The Most Dangerous Environment for Trade Unions

source: Telesu, Jan 7 2018

"It is better not to say anything, it is better not to talk, not to speak, it is better to be silent to stay alive," a local priest said.

The murder of a social activist has become an almost weekly news event in Colombia as more than 100 community leaders have been killed over the past year by right-wing paramilitaries, Empire Files Abby Martin reports.

Just a year after the signing of what was thought to be the monumental movement towards peace with the country’s largest guerrilla group and Colombian government calling a truce, the violence targeting union and social leaders has rocketed.

In the last year, 170 leaders and social activists known for their various missions in defense of indigenous rights, coca rights substitution, Afro-Colombian rights, labor rights, and LGBTQ. The statistics show a sharp contrast from prior years where 2016 saw 117 and 63 in 2015.

The majority of violence has erupted in sectors left vacant by the guerrilla groups which have since been invaded by paramilitary groups. Of all of these, trade unions have risen to the top in the number of the nation's homicides and victims of violence and death threats, making Colombia the most dangerous nation for union members in the world.

Over the last 20 years, about 3,000 unionists have been murdered with an outrageous rate of impunity for the homicides measuring at 87 percent with thousands of death threats never being investigated.

“It is difficult to unionize in Colombia. Here, whoever complains is killed... And unfortunately, if we look at the statistics today, here in the municipality of Tumaco [Nariño Dept], we have roughly almost 60 unionists threatened or killed. We have 17 unionists dead, who are no longer with us just because they claimed the right to a dignified life, to land rights,” Carlos Diaz, Afro-Colombian leader and president of the teachers union, Seupac, told TeleSur.

Diaz related the case of a colleague who was an active representative of the Black communities and a member of the teacher’s union who was arrested and violently beaten within an inch of his life by police authorities after threatening to sue in the defense of educator labor rights.

“Today he is a quadriplegic who cannot speak, he stutters, he loses consciousness, his head was struck, he has multiple injuries all over his body and today, he’s running away...This partner, just because he made a complaint, they tried to silence him. They labeled him an enemy, as a government enemy,” he said, adding that simply sharing his perspective with TeleSur put him in the line of danger.

“In our community the effect is that you cannot talk about anything, you cannot share anything. It is better not to say anything, it is better not to talk, not to speak, it is better to be silent to stay alive,” said a local pastor and spiritual leader of Luz Yeni Montano, a 48-year-old Tumacan activist who was gunned down in her home in November.

Diaz explained that extreme delays in the Colombian judicial process from one department to the next only aided the high rate of impunity to continue. Those who are subject to death threats are left to face their aggressors alone. Police will not react until the body of a unionist turns up on the side of the road, Diaz said. He added investigations will go on for years without ever reaching a conviction.

In an effort to maintain the situation, government officials have increased police forces by 9,000 units, however, many community members are wary of the teams of law enforcement infiltrating the country’s rural agricultural sectors.

“We do not trust them, because of so many things that have happened over the years. We have nothing against the police or against the army. We simply say that this is not the way. It increases the levels of violence instead of lowering them,” the Tumacan priest said.

According to a recent report published by the Institute of Studies for Peace Development, Indepaz, a Colombian non-governmental organization, the murders are highly localized to four regional departments: Nariño (28), Antioquia (23), Valle (14) and Choco (12). There were 32 assassinations alone in the community of San Jose de Apartado Cauca located in Antioquia.