Unions Under Siege in Colombia, with US Aid

Plumbers and Fitters Local 393 members in San Jose, Calif., voted to send two members to Colombia with a Witness for Peace/Global Exchange labor delegation in January. Mary Gaddis and Fred Hirsch went so they could see first-hand the effects $1.3 billion of US aid had on Colombian trade unionists. Known as Plan Colombia, the US sends supposedly "counter-narcotics" aid to this strife-torn nation of 40 million people. This is what Hirsch saw and heard.

Bogota, Colombia

Terrible outrages are happening here, funded by taxes that US working people pay.

"We call Plan Colombia 'Plan Latin America.' It's not about drugs, but about corporate control of the entire region. It will give us war without end," one trade union leader told us.

"Most US aid goes into the military, the rest into corrupt hands," another man explained. "We have 30% unemployment, 26 million people are in misery, most of the rest are just poor and 10 families rule the country. Plan Colombia strengthens the institutions that cause these conditions."

I'm a retired plumber who's been around the block a few times. I'm not easily moved, but in Colombia I saw a daily life reality I'd only glimpsed before, mostly in nightmares.

Several images are etched in my mind for life. An economics professor told of the torture he had escaped at the garrison of the Nueva Granada Battalion, where he was hung from a tree by the arms. His tormenters demanded the names of union oil workers he taught, so they could be tortured too, and likely assassinated as "subversives."

Our 20-member trade union delegation went to that garrison. We probably saw the tree from which our friend had hung. We listened to and questioned the commander of the base, Col. Gilberto Ibarra.

My spine trembled to hear him say his officers, trained at the School of the Americas (also known as School of the Assassins) had "worked in the community for peace and prosperity with trust and love."

We were told the camouflage-clad Ibarra had set up a United Self-defense of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary death squad in a nearby town. Plan Colombia "is positive for employment in our country and it ... helps to persuade terrorists to concede to government demands," Ibarra said. "We're working to win hearts and minds as was done in Honduras and Guatemala" (where death squads decimated unions and the military wiped out many indigenous villages).

The unions are "a complex problem," Ibarra said. "There are guerrillas and sympathizers in USO (Union Sindical Obrera, the oil workers union). Many are in the same families. For example, if a man's brother is a subversive, he'll help him ... Yes, union people are involved in terrorism." He thus signals the go-ahead to cleanse the unions of what he calls "subversion and terrorism."

I was escorted to the toilet by a sergeant with a rifle at the ready so I could vomit.

The USO put it differently. Fifty years ago USO fought to establish Ecopetrol, the state-run oil company. Then transnational corporations (TNCs) took 8% of the profits; now they get 70%. USO is fighting against new oil contracts giving 95% of profits to the TNCs, which include Amoco, Occidental, Shell and Texaco.

A young USO leader said, "Globalization attacks everything we've built. They want to privatize Ecopetrol and do away with our labor laws. They want us out of the way to do it. That's what it's all about." Some 140 USO members have received death threats.

An older man said, "Everyone who speaks out is in danger. They call us subversives because we defend workers."

When Aury Sara Marrugo's name came up, the group fell silent. He was USO president in Cartagena until his recent death.

Labeled a subversive, Sara was picked up by the paramilitaries. His body was found with 70 stab wounds, underarms seared with a torch, gums mutilated and abdomen scarred with acid. His ordeal ended with a bullet in the face.

The economist, whose torture was described, no longer teaches at the university. As an AUC "military target," a regular schedule would court death. He rarely sleeps in the same place two nights in a row.

He recounted Colombia's history and political economy. From 1900 to 1920, when drugs were not at issue, 50,000 indigenous people were killed in the Putamayo region in order to grab their land. From 1948-1958, 250,000 people were killed and two million displaced for sugar industry expansion.

In 1984, 32% of arable land was held by big landowners: today, 49%. Colombia imports eight times the food it did in 1981, while 15 million acres lie fallow. The stake is no longer agriculture but oil, coal, natural gas, gold and other riches in unexplored Colombian soil. "It is still," the economist said, "genocide to further economic growth."

Black people are 19% of the population, yet 37% of the 2.5 million displaced people. Racism thrives. An Afro-Colombian peace leader told us that four campesinos are killed and two "disappear" daily, to terrorize the people and drive them from their land.

Three Afro-Colombian community leaders detailed how they are being driven from ancestral lands to make way for dams, land speculators and a "water highway."

We were told, "Displacement is not a consequence, but a strategy of the drug war."

With rural people pushed into the cities by paramilitary terror, the economist and the peace movement leader both said the trade union movement and human rights organizations are the hope for rescuing democracy and defending the country from TNC plunder.

That is why union leaders and other defenders of workers' rights are targets. The economist said, "If the violence we live with were truly known in your country, it would be stopped." Paramilitary terror against Sinaltrainal, the Coca Cola workers union, drove union membership down from 5,600 to 2,000 in three years.

In Antioquia, when Isidro Segundo Gil refused to sign a company form renouncing the union, he was killed inside the plant. Then the "paras" took workers one by one into a small room and told them to sign, leave town fast, or die. Only seven of 157 workers remained in the union. In one plant paras killed six workers and burned the union office. The company then gave the paras money to rebuild the union office for their own use. A Coca Cola worker said, "We see paras in camouflage, in patrols with the military. They're the army's Sixth Division in this dirty war."

The danger level rose after Sept. 11, labeling union people "terrorists." Another worker said, "Fascism is more than an echo from the past."

In a genuine solidarity action, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) filed a suit against Coca Cola for human rights violations against Sinaltrainal. They've called for a major demonstration July 22 at Coca Cola's corporate headquarters in Atlanta. In Bogota at the office of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), the largest Colombian labor federation, with 600,000 members, we met with the Women's Department: cut-flower and child-care workers, small bus operators and domestic workers.

What they suffer just for sticking to the union is mind-blowing; over 3,800 Colombian unionists have been assassinated since 1986, more than in the rest of the world.

Last year the CUT recorded 169 assassinations of trade unionists, 30 attempted assassinations, 79 kidnapped and "disappeared" and over 400 death threats.

They told us about Maria Ropero. She might have been with us in the office that day, but paramilitaries assassinated her with 13 bullets a week-and-a-half before. Not a single perpetrator has been prosecuted.

At the Coal Miners Union office in Bogota, we heard about union negotiators at Drummond's La Loma Mine. Union President Valmore Locarno and Vice President Victor Orcasita asked to stay overnight in the mine for security reasons. Drummond refused. The two left the mine on a company bus filled with workers. Paramilitaries stopped the bus and went right for the two negotiators. Locarno was killed in the bus, on the spot. Orcasita was taken off. His corpse was found without fingernails.

Gustavo Soler replaced Locarno as president. After Soler was named and quoted in a US magazine he, too, was assassinated. Drummond denies blame, saying security is a government responsibility. Company security includes 1,200 soldiers at the mine who socialize with paras from the nearby AUC base.

One miner said, "The paras fuel their vehicles at the mine for free. [If you] talk about working conditions, social justice or just fail to conform, you're a military target."

Mine union officials call Plan Colombia "a military part of making the Free Trade Area of the Americas a reality." When Drummond Coal started mining in Colombia, it shut five mines in Alabama, eliminating 1,700 US jobs.

"Last year," one said, "the IMF forced Colombian President Andres Pastrana to seek to eliminate limits on international monopolies in our mining laws, weaken Minercol (the state company) and shut many small mines."

"Their agenda," said another, "is to destroy our labor movement, end the eight-hour day, cut wages and overtime pay and privatize the pension system."

The miners said, "Tell Americans that Plan Colombia only strengthens the military, which, in turn, empowers the paramilitaries to do politics by terror."

Yolanda runs a shop in a nearby barrio controlled by the AUC. In that place -- everywhere -- names and too much detail can cost lives. We were forewarned not to press for answers that are not volunteered. Not long ago Yolanda had seen her oil worker husband, two sons and four others killed in the soccer field we had passed down the road.

Another son and 24 others were disappeared that day. There, "disappeared" means a person is taken to the Arenal area, a sparsely populated sector. The victim is stripped of all papers, tortured for names of fellow workers, killed, then cut up with chain saws. Tossed in the river, the chunks of human flesh disappear.

Before we left, an African-American woman in our group began singing a haunting melody once sung as slaves were sold away from their families: "Courage, brother Courage, sister. You do not walk alone. We will walk with you and sing your spirits on."

Between sobs, Yolanda asked, "Why aren't there more people like you?" I snapped a photo, but it was blurred by tears.

Organized by the military, the AUC is backed by big landowners and drug lords. They focus on "fighting guerrillas," but really attack, kidnap, mutilate, kill and disembowel people who organize and speak out for peace and human rights -- especially union leaders.

This modern version of the Nazi Brownshirts acts with total impunity. Every group we interviewed, from labor to management, militarist to pacifist, Marxist to Christian, officials in government to the US Embassy, each acknowledged, from their own experience, that the paramilitary death squads and the military, funded by our tax dollars, are inextricably linked.

Clear proof of AUC collaboration with military and security forces occurs in Barrancabermeja, a city of 200,000 with an 80-year militant union history.

It is the most militarized city in Colombia, yet it is under total political control of the AUC paramilitaries, who threaten, assassinate and make people disappear at almost double the rate of the rest of the country, 400 last year -- 35 times the homicide rate in the United States.

We went to the Women's Popular Organization (OFP). They greeted us with music and we all danced. Later when we met with them there was no more dancing. They became dead serious in telling their story.

One young woman had been kidnapped by the paras only three days before. OFP organized such broad protest that the police, just by cruising the barrio, had the paras release her. OFP runs five community houses performing every conceivable community service, including a free meal program. They believe, "Poor women and men must organize. It is our only chance to live in dignity."

The OFP said, "Of course, the paras work with the state security forces. They destroyed our community house while the army watched from down the street."

They work closely with the unions. "For us the gender struggle goes hand-in-hand with the class struggle," one leader said. Their final plea was, "Don't let your taxes inflame the war. We don't bear and raise children for war."

Before leaving Barrancabermeja, we held a press conference. We promised that we would do everything in our power to end US military aid. We charged that it doesn't matter how US aid is earmarked, it all goes in the same pot. Money to defoliate crops in Putamayo releases money to assassinate trade unionists in Barrancabermeja.

President Bush's request for $600 million, including $98 million to protect oil pipelines, tears the mask off his counter-narcotics rationale. We have to stop sending our taxes and soldiers to protect corporate interests in Colombia.

Fred Hirsch is a retired plumber in Santa Cruz, Calif., and member of Plumbers and Fitters Local 393 in San Jose. Email

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