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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

Targeting Teachers: The 'dirty war' against Colombia's unions

With educators in the crosshairs, government now fighting back.

COTORRA, Colombia — It was a savage, mafia-style hit.

Alejandro Peñata, a Colombian teacher and union activist, was strangled with a length of barbed wire that was still coiled around his neck when his brother fished his corpse out of a drainage ditch.

Peñata, 35, was a social studies teacher and school vice principal in Cotorra, a hamlet in the northern department of Cordoba, which is under siege from drug trafficking gangs. His wife, Lilian Perez, described Peñata as slightly nerdish, a man so dedicated to his job that he relaxed by reading teaching manuals. Why, she wonders, would anyone want him dead?

Like so many other cases involving Colombian union activists, mystery shrouds the killing of Peñata on June 20, 2011. Seven months after he was garroted, there have been no arrests. As he sat in a rocking chair sobbing so hard that his body quivered, Miguel Peñata, Alejandro’s 78-year-old father, said: “My son didn’t deserve to die like that.”  

Peñata’s murder helps illustrate why, according to Human Rights Watch, Colombia remains the most dangerous country on Earth for labor activists. The U.S. State Department points out that more than half of the 90 trade unionists killed around the world in 2010 were Colombians.

“We feel like we’re in the middle of a hurricane. We wonder: Who will be next?”
~Alvaro Gonzalez, high school professor

The ongoing violence prompted Washington to condition passage of a free trade agreement with the Bogota government to a so-called Labor Action Plan that sets benchmarks and timetables for improving worker rights. But 10 months after the plan was signed, critics contend that hopeful rhetoric from Colombian officials doesn't square with the slow pace of progress on the ground.

“Unions are still being undermined,” Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who is part of a Congressional group monitoring compliance with the Labor Action Plan, told GlobalPost.

“Human rights have to be more than an afterthought,” McGovern continued. “If the Colombian government does not keep its promises, many of us (in Congress) would strongly urge the Obama administration to halt the implementation of the trade agreement.”

McGovern’s skepticism is echoed by Celeste Drake, an international trade policy specialist at the AFL-CIO. She points out that death threats, union-busting tactics by businesses and other forms of intimidation — which don’t grab as many headlines as killings but can prevent Colombian workers from organizing in the first place — have increased over the past five years.

After a quarter century of horrific violence against union members, Drake said, “It really does take a lot of time and commitment for a culture to say: ‘We will not tolerate this anymore.’”

Colombian officials insist they are making headway.

They point out that the overall murder rate of union members has tapered off. President Juan Manuel Santos re-opened the Labor Ministry, which had been shuttered by his predecessor, and named a former union confederation leader, Angelino Garzon, as his vice president.

Santos also agreed to the Labor Action Plan which helped convince the U.S. Congress in October to ratify the trade agreement, which had been shelved since 2006 largely due to concerns among Democrats about the violent repression of labor unions.

“These commitments lay the groundwork for significant labor rights improvements in Colombia,” U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said last week after meeting in Washington with Colombian Labor Minister Rafael Pardo.  

But as labor advocates are quick to point out, Colombia still has a very long way to go.

Luciano Sanin, executive director of the National Labor School, a Medellin-based research center, says the hostility stands in sharp contrast to many other Latin American nations where workers have been fortified over the years by pro-labor governments. 

They included Juan Perón’s populist regime in Argentina in the 1940s and 50s, the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico for decades, and most recently the Workers’ Party in Brazil. Before serving as president of Brazil from 2002 to 2010, Luiz Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was president of the country’s steel workers union.

In Argentina, 38 percent of the labor force is now unionized while the rate is 17 percent in Mexico and 21 percent in Brazil, according to the National Labor School. In Colombia, by contrast, just 4 percent of workers belong to unions — one of the lowest rates in the hemisphere.

Within Colombia’s unionized work force, teachers compose the largest bloc with 27 percent. Partly due to their sheer numbers and nationwide presence, educators also make up the largest number of victims. In addition, they come under fire for their role as vanguards of knowledge, reform, and freedom of expression in remote and lawless areas.

“We feel like we’re in the middle of a hurricane,” said Alvaro Gonzalez, a high school professor in Cotorra who worked alongside Peñata before he was strangled. “We wonder: Who will be next?”

Among the 51 Colombian union members killed in 2010, 29 were teachers. Last year, professors made up 14 of the 26 labor activists murdered in Colombia.

Over the past 25 years in Cordoba, nearly 100 teachers have been killed — so many that the Cordoba teacher’s union, known as ADEMACOR, commissioned a sculpture in their honor.

Unveiled in 2009, the fiberglass-and-steel art work titled “Monument to the Fallen Teacher,” adorns the entrance to ADEMACOR’s headquarters in Monteria, the provincial capital. It depicts a martyred professor sprawled face down, his fingers wrapped around a diploma in a defiant death grip.

The Dirty War

Made up of tailors and shoemakers, Colombia’s first legally recognized union emerged in 1909. But Sanin, of the National Labor School, said a series of military and conservative governments viewed the labor movement as a kind of disloyal opposition. However, it was the country’s guerrilla war, which began a half century ago and still rages today, that provoked a far more brutal backlash.

For decades, leftists had been shut out of Colombia’s political system which gave rise to a handful of rebel groups in the 1960s. Guerrilla commanders and union leaders often espoused the same left-wing rhetoric and, in a few cases, labor activists gave up on legal politics and joined the rebels.

“Some union members obeyed the interests of the guerrillas rather than the interests of the workers. It was obvious and it did a lot of damage to the labor movement,” Labor Minister Pardo told GlobalPost. “Of course, none of this justifies the violence against the unions.”

Although limited, the rebel connection allowed paramilitaries to paint the entire labor movement as a den of Communists and to begin hunting down union activists en masse. These right-wing death squads worked in cahoots with the Colombian Army and were often financed by business leaders and land owners who had no interest in seeing their workers organize.

The death toll was staggering. Nearly 3,000 union activists — including close to 1,000 teachers — have been killed since 1986, according to the National Labor School.

Still, one imprisoned former paramilitary commander, Ever Veloza Garcia, who admitted to killing 18 labor activists in the mid-1990s, told prosecutors that he often acted on erroneous information. Many of his victims, Veloza concluded, had no ties to the guerrillas.

In some cases, the Colombian government ignored the bloodshed — or actively participated. Jose Miguel Vivanco, who heads the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said the paramilitaries “historically operated with the toleration or even active support of members of the public security forces, as well as in collaboration with politicians and allies in the private sector.”

One of the most outrageous cases involved the the country’s now-shuttered intelligence agency, known as the DAS, which provided information to paramilitaries on union activists who were later assassinated. Among them was Alfredo Correa de Andreis, a university sociology professor who was investigating illegal land seizures in northern Colombia. Working with intelligence provided by the DAS, motorcycle hit men gunned down Correa de Andreis in September 2004.

“Academia is, in many ways, the engine that drives a pluralistic, democratic society,” Elizabeth Brumfiel, president of the American Anthropological Association, wrote in a letter to the Colombian government shortly after the Correa killing. “Every time a student, a schoolteacher, or a university professor is lost to an act of violence in Colombia, public trust in the educational system is compromised and confidence in the future is diminished.”