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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.

Mystery and impunity

Under a government peace process, the paramilitaries formally disarmed in the mid-2000s. Last year, in a rare case of justice being served, former DAS director Jorge Noguera was convicted for his role in the killing of Correa de Andreis and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

But teachers and other trade unionists remain in the crossfire.

Many former paramilitary fighters have gone on to form a new generation of armed groups dedicated to drug trafficking, extortion and other crimes. These organizations, which now have about 6,000 members, are called bandas criminales in Spanish, or "bacrim." Colombian security officials say they now pose an even greater threat to national security than the guerrillas.  

The bacrim often go after teachers and anyone else who gets in their way, according to Domingo Ayala, president of ADEMACOR, the Cordoba teachers’ union, who has been assigned a bodyguard from the Interior Ministry after receiving death threats.

With the rise to the bacrim, which have no political ideology, the traditional Cold War paradigm that once drove anti-union violence has given way to a murkier set of motives. The Peñata killing in Cordoba, which has become a key cocaine-smuggling corridor for the bacrim, is a prime example.

Peñata’s motorcycle and personal documents were found next to the drainage canal indicating it wasn’t a robbery gone awry. A police investigator told GlobalPost that his men found a logbook indicating that Peñata owed loan sharks about $17,000. But Perez, Peñata’s wife, pointed out that the couple lived modestly in a rented house and had no children to support.

“This is a total mystery,” she said.

At the school in Cotorra, a sun-drenched village surrounded by cattle ranches and cotton farms where Peñata worked, several of his former colleagues said Peñata was always agitating to improve working conditions. Peñata had accused the principal of misusing school funds and the two men clashed over the leaky roof in the teachers’ lounge and the Spartan classrooms that lacked everything from light bulbs to textbooks.

“Alejandro complained a lot which is why we think his death was related to his role as a teacher,” said Gonzalez, who has worked at the school for 18 years.

That possibility is why the Peñata case has been transferred to a special unit within the Colombian Attorney General’s office that investigates anti-union crimes. But of the 195 murder cases that the special unit has taken on since it began operating in 2007, there have been just six convictions, according to Human Rights Watch.

This widespread impunity has a chilling effect on the labor movement. Whether Peñata was killed for personal or political reasons, Gonzalez says, the mystery surrounding his death will make teachers and other workers balk when it comes to demanding their rights and joining unions in the future.

On the other hand, he says, the assassins won’t think twice about striking again because they almost always get away with murder.

Threat level: Severe

Yet most of the time, the gunmen don’t even have to pull the trigger. Sanin says that a single, threatening message is often enough to disrupt organizing drives or to convince activists to flee.  

A chilling example took place in Dorada, an impoverished, off-the-map hamlet in southern Cordoba where Indira Parra accepted a job as a school psychologist and social studies teacher. But shortly after she arrived in 2008, members of a bacrim called the Black Eagles moved into Dorada.

Its members informed villagers that they were their new overlords and began patrolling the streets at night, Parra said. They also stressed that officers at the nearest police station 10 miles away were no longer welcome in Dorada.

When the police learned of the meeting, agents made a brief appearance in the village to reassert their authority. They also visited Parra at the school and handed out candy to her students. That afternoon while Parra was walking home, one of the Black Eagles approached her.

“He told me: ‘If the police keep coming here, you are going to pay for it,’” she recalled.

Parra shrugged off the threat and immersed herself in her job. In villages like Dorada, where there’s not even a church and the only symbol of the government’s presence is the school, teachers often become respected community leaders. Parra used her influence to convince local teenagers to resist the lure of the Black Eagles, who were offering teenagers monthly stipends to serve as informants and drug runners.

“A lot of students wanted to join. I told them: ‘No. You need to study to have a better future,’” Parra said. 

“Teachers are union members,” she continued. “We fight for the rights (of teachers and students) but not through violence. We do it pacifically. So, the bacrim began to view me as an obstacle.”

Soon, Parra discovered graffiti on the bathroom wall of the school saying she would be raped and killed. She scrubbed the wall clean but the threatening language reappeared. Students began showing up at school with machetes and handguns and several dropped out to join the Black Eagles.

Finally, Parra requested a transfer. After leaving Dorada she filed a criminal complaint but her case remains in limbo. In fact, the special unit at the Attorney General’s office has failed to obtain a single conviction for the more than 1,500 threats against union members registered since 2007, according to Human Rights Watch.

A growing number of these threats are aimed at teachers’ wallets. In the village of Las Delicias in southern Cordoba, for example, all 42 teachers came under pressure to make payoffs to a local bacrim.

Educators, it turns out, are often the only people in rural communities who receive regular monthly salaries. And as members of unions that bargain collectively to set pay scales and working conditions their wages – though hardly lavish – are better than the average. Many earn around $800 a month, more than twice the minimum wage. 

“If you are part of a union,” Sanin said, “the union can pull you out of poverty.”

But decent paychecks can also turn teachers into easy marks, said Alexander Fernandez, the vice principal of the combined elementary and high school in Las Delicias.  

Last May, Fernandez and other teachers in Las Delicias received messages on their mobile phones instructing them to pool their resources and come up with about $3,000 to pay a bacrim commander. When they refused, a subsequent message upped the figure to about $8,000 and said the teachers had one week to meet the new demand. Fearing for their lives, the teachers closed the school and fled with some taking refuge in the ADEMCACOR union hall in Monteria.

During a recent visit to Las Delicias, the only person at the school, a complex of one-story concrete buildings shaded by almond trees, was a janitor who doubled as the security guard. Dust lay thick on the desks while the chalkboards were still marked with verb conjugations and math equations.

“People panicked and we all left the village,” explained Fernandez, who was eventually transferred to another school and now lives in Monteria. “It was a very painful chapter in our lives.”

John Otis is GlobalPost's correspondent in Colombia. "Targeting Teachers" is part of a GlobalPost 'Special Report' on labor rights around the world.