Colombia Continues Assault of Trade Unionists With U.S. Assistance
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Daniel Kovalik  

Once again, Colombia has been declared the most dangerous country in the world by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in its most recent annual report of trade union rights world-wide. According to the ICFTU report, out of a total of 115 trade unionists killed across the world in 2005, 70 (including 15 women) were murdered in Colombia alone. In other words, Colombia, with a population of only 44 million people, accounted for almost 61% of this world’s trade union killings. And, incredibly, this was a good year for Colombia, given that the numbers for 2004, 2003 and 2002 were 99, 91 and 184 trade union killings respectively. Despite this ‘progress’, the ICFTU reports that other forms of harassment against trade unionists rose 88.2% from the year before, as did abductions of trade unionists (by 20%).

One trade unionist is assassinated once every few days in Colombia, and well over 4000 trade union leaders have been killed in the past twenty years. And, shockingly, the trade unionists in Colombia most targeted for assassination are teachers. As the U.S. State Department itself has reported, these assassinations are largely being carried out by paramilitary forces who obtain intelligence, weapons, ammunition, logistical support and even troops from Colombia’s regular armed forces – armed forces which, we note, have received billions of dollars of assistance from the U.S. since 2000. The State Department further relates in its most recent human rights report that the collaboration of the Colombian military with these paramilitary forces, “often facilitated unlawful killings and sometimes may have involved direct participation in paramilitary atrocities.” In one of the more shocking episodes in recent years, the 18th Brigade of the Colombian military directly participated in the close-range assassination of three trade union leaders in the oil-rich region of Arauca in August of 2004.

In addition, it has recently come out that the Colombian agency known as the DAS, which is tasked to protect trade unionists under threat and which has received U.S.-AID monies to do carry out this mission, has, for at least the past 3 years, been maintaining hit lists of trade union leaders for the paramilitaries to target and assassinate. Meanwhile, as the U.S. State Department reports, only a handful of the thousands of cases of trade union assassinations have ever been successfully investigated and prosecuted, meaning that there is almost total impunity in that country for violence against trade unionists. The labor situation in Colombia is so grave that the International Labor Organization (ILO) just this year took the unprecedented step of agreeing to set up a permanent mission in Colombia to try to promote respect for basic labor rights, including the right to life of those workers who dare to form a union and attempt to bargain with an employer.

However, none of this has stopped the U.S. from sending an unprecedented level of support to the Colombian military – over $4 billion since 2000 – making Colombia the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world. Moreover, in spite of the appalling anti-union violence in Colombia, the U.S. is poised to sign a new Free Trade Agreement with Colombia – an agreement which would give preferential treatment to that country, eliminating tariffs and other barriers to goods and services exported from that country to the U.S. In short, the U.S. appears willing to not only sanction these horrible abuses against trade unionists, but in fact to reward Colombia for the impunity with which they are enacted.

This sanctioning of Colombia’s misdeeds appears to protect and furthers US interests, both in terms of the U.S.’s ability to freely exploit Colombia’s natural resources - of which oil is the most important – as well as the interests of U.S. companies doing business in Colombia. Indeed, the U.S. State Department demonstrated this in a Statement of Interest it filed in an(ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to have a court dismiss a human rights case against Occidental Petroleum – a case stemming from Occidental’s participation in the bombing of a small town called Santo Domingo which resulted in the deaths of 17 civilians, including 7 children. The State Department’s letter is largely dedicated to explaining how the business and investments of Occidental, and other like companies operating in Colombia, will be adversely threatened if this lawsuit is allowed to go forward in the U.S. The State Department urges that the case be dismissed in the interest of these companies and in the interest of the U.S.’s continued access to oil in Colombia. Of course, the sinister implication of this State Department position is that the business and investments of multinationals doing business in Colombia are not safe unless these multinationals are protected from lawsuits for their egregious violations of human rights. Note that the State Department does not deny Occidental’s complicity in the deaths of innocents, it simply privileges the interests of multinationals over them.

What our country needs is a sensible trade and foreign policy which elevates the rights of workers and trade unionists here and abroad above the ability of companies to earn exorbitant profits at any cost. A good start to such a policy shift would be a rejection of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia which is now being considered by Congress and the end to the U.S.’s continued support for Colombia’s repressive military.

Dan Kovalik is a labor and human rights attorney and blogs at

Editorial note: Union leaders and organizers of SINALTRAINAL (National Union of Food Industry Workers) account for a large number of those targeted in Colombia. Workers at Coca-Cola bottling plants in particular (members of SINALTRAINAL) have been subjected to horrifying levels of violence and intimidation over the last few years, including murders, kidnapping and torture. This goes far beyond the average garden-variety ‘union-busting’. In July 2001, the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund ( filed a lawsuit on behalf of SINALTRAINAL, several of its members and the estate of Isidro Gil, one of its murdered officers. The lawsuit states that ‘Coca-Cola bottlers “contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilize extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders,”’ and ‘notes that Colombian troops connected with the paramilitaries have trained at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Ga., where trainees were encouraged to torture and murder those who do “union organizing and recruiting;” pass out “propaganda in favor of workers;” and “sympathize with demonstrators or strikes.” This was made public when the Pentagon was forced to reveal the contents of training manuals used at the school. (For more information, see, the website of SOA Watch.)’.
Read the Killer Coke website ( for details.


First published in Ghadar []