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Violence could overshadow Obama-Uribe meeting

When the Colombian president meets Obama on Monday, the deaths of labor leaders likely will come up.

Aristides Hernandez, president of the local health workers union, holding up a death threat he received from paramilitaries. (John Otis/GlobalPost)

CUCUTA, Colombia — Colombia’s status as the most dangerous spot in the world for labor leaders could overshadow President Alvaro Uribe’s Monday meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Uribe will be only the second Latin American leader to visit the Obama White House. At the top of Uribe’s wish list is congressional passage of a trade deal that was signed by the two nations in November 2006.

But U.S. lawmakers have refused to approve the trade agreement due, in part, to the grim fact that since 1986 more than 2,700 union activists have been killed in Colombia. And the death toll keeps rising.

The latest victim was Rafael Sepulveda, a 41-year-old pharmacist who worked at the mental hospital in this city on the Venezuelan border and was killed last weekend.

“Rafael was on his front porch with his wife when a young man showed up,” said Edio Botello, an official with Anthoc, the country’s largest union of health care workers, which represented Sepulveda. “The gunman fired nine times. Rafael was hit by six bullets.”

Supporters of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement — which would allow for about 80 percent of U.S. industrial and commercial goods to enter Colombia duty free — say the deal would seal a long-term partnership with a reliable U.S. ally at a time when many leftist leaders in Latin America are turning away from Washington.

Uribe claims that the pact would help end the violence by strengthening the legal economy in a nation where thousands of youths find employment in the drug trade or by joining Marxist guerrillas or paramilitary groups.

He also points out that his government has made great strides in reducing the overall level of violence in Colombia.

About 30,000 paramilitary fighters have disarmed since Uribe first took office in 2002. The army has driven leftist guerrillas out of many parts of the country. Kidnappings have dropped off, and there have been fewer killings of labor leaders.

Last year, 49 union activists were murdered, compared with 21 killed so far this year, according to statistics compiled by the National Labor School, an organization that promotes union issues. While those numbers are still high, the annual death toll in the mid-1990s often topped 200.

During the presidential campaign last year, Obama came out against the trade deal.

Since taking the oath of office, however, Obama has voiced conditional support pending improvements in Colombia. To that end, he has asked U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to help Colombia establish benchmarks for reducing violence and increasing the number of prosecutions of criminals who target labor leaders.