Colombia is finally moving against killers of unionists
Date of publication: January 26, 2008
Source: Miami Herald
Democrats' refusal to ratify a trade pact with Colombia until there's progress in curbing violence against unionists is spurring trials and slowly ending impunity.
By Sibylla Brodzinsky
BOGOTA -- It took more than six years for the killers of union activist Luis Manuel Anaya to be brought to trial. Were it not for the U.S. and Colombian governments' quest to adopt a free-trade agreement, they might never have.
Anaya was one of the estimated 700 union members murdered in Colombia since 2001, making it the world's most dangerous place for labor activists. About 98 percent of the killings remain unsolved, mired in a labyrinthine legal system.
It wasn't until the Democratic leadership in the U.S. Congress balked at ratifying the free-trade agreement with Colombia last year that real efforts were made to clear up those cases, says José Luciano Sanín, director of the National Union School, which tracks violence against Colombia's labor movement.
''All of a sudden with this external pressure, ending impunity in union cases has become a priority because it is a condition for approval of the FTA,'' he says.
Government critics say threats and intimidation continue. But the number of union members killed last year -- 25 by the government's count, though Sanín's group puts the number at 40 -- is a far cry from the peak of 275 murders in 1996.
The U.S. Congressional Democratic leadership is refusing to bring the trade deal to a vote until there is more significant progress in Colombia's efforts to curb violence against trade unionists and end impunity.
The government says progress is being made, and points to cases like Anaya's as proof.
Anaya was gunned down at a bus stop early one morning in October 2001 in the steamy river port city of Barrancabermeja where he was a union treasurer at a local transport company. Three days later, union president Luis Alberto López was pulled from his motorcycle and shot dead on the side of a road.
Late last month a special court convicted two men who killed the union representatives on the orders of right-wing warlords who had a chokehold on the region at the time.
The existence of the special court -- dedicated solely to anti-union violence -- and the convictions are the result of international pressure on the Colombian government to curb violence against labor leaders in Colombia,
The Colombian government in July created the special ''decongestion'' courts where Anaya's killers were convicted. And the national prosecutors' office last year established a special unit of 13 prosecutors for crimes against union members. They have given priority to 187 high-profile cases. So far only 23 convictions have been handed down.
The government also is spending $39 million on special protection measures for about 1,400 union members that have been threatened, ranging from armed guards to armored vehicles.
Deputy Labor Minister Andrés Fernando Palacio says the government effort to speed up convictions was not made in response to the problems with the free-trade agreement, but rather to comply with International Labor Organization recommendations.
''We never thought [the issue] was going to become so big in the United States. But now that the convictions are coming out, naturally it serves to show that we are doing things,'' he said in a telephone interview. ``The motives are not so important, what's important is that we're doing it. If the FTA pushes us to move faster, all the better.''
The recent convictions are just one of the figures that Colombian government officials show the steady stream of U.S. congress members who have traveled to Colombia in the past seven months as part of a Bush Administration effort to persuade them to approve the FTA. The latest and most high-profile delegation was led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday.
The Bush administration believes it can win approval of the agreement if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi schedules a vote, but congressional aides say that in an election year and with a recession looming over the U.S. economy, few lawmakers would be willing to vote in favor.
''Instead of pressing Congress to ignore Colombia's deplorable record, Secretary Rice should use the trade deal as leverage to press Colombia's government to effectively confront impunity,'' José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Labor leaders say they are aware that they have to take advantage of the leverage the FTA has given them while it lasts. If a Democrat wins the White House in this year's election, the trade deal will cease to be an issue he predicts.
So when congressional delegations come to Colombia, Sanín tries to make the message clear: ''We tell them that even if the FTA is approved, they have to keep up the pressure on the [Colombian] government,'' Sanín says. ``Otherwise, we'll go back to where we were before.''