Colombia: A Dangerous Place for Trade Unionists

Amnesty International

Press Release: April 30th, 2004

On 20 April 2004, Gabriel Remolina, the brother-in-law of the president of the Bucaramanga Branch of SINALTRAINAL (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de Alimentos - the National Union of Food Industry Workers) and his partner, Fanny Robles, were killed by unidentified gunmen. The gunmen are reported to have forced their way into Gabriel Remolina's home in Bucaramanga, department of Santander, and opened fire indiscriminately. Three of his children were injured in the attack and one of them, Robinson Remolina, died shortly afterwards in hospital.

Gabriel Remolina worked for Coca Cola and the killings followed numerous death threats, killings and attempts on the lives of SINALTRAINAL workers by army-backed paramilitaries in recent years.

An attempt was made on the life of Juan Carlos Galvis, vice-president of the Barrancabermeja section of SINALTRAINAL, and a leader of the Barrancabermeja section of CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores - the Trade Union Confederation), on 22 August 2003. The attack happened during on-going labour disputes between the management of the local bottling plant in Barrancabermeja and the union.

The plant was taken over by Mexico-based FEMSA when the company bought Colombia's Coca-Cola largest bottler, Panamco, on 24 December 2002. The attempt on Juan Carlos Galvis' life and subsequent death threats came as the company was informing several workers that they were being made redundant.

SINALTRAINAL members working for Coca Cola began a national hunger strike on 15 March 2004, as part of their on-going labour disputes with the company. The union's leaders subsequently reported that they had received death threats. The hunger strike was lifted on 27 March when the union reached an agreement with the company.

Over 70% of killings and threats against trade unionists occur within the context of labour disputes. Trade unionists particularly targeted are leaders of trade union confederations; those involved in labour disputes; trade unionists in state enterprises who campaign against privatization, including those in the health and education sectors and trade unionists in strategic sectors of the Colombian economy such as the oil industry.

At least 80 trade unionists were killed or "disappeared" in 2003. The vast majority of human rights abuses against trade unionists were attributed to the security forces and paramilitary allies, although guerrilla forces were also held responsible for many abuses. Although less than the total number of trade unionists killed in 2002, Amnesty International is concerned that the Colombian Government has failed to ensure substantive improvement in the security situation faced by trade unionists.

Over the last decade, figures of human rights violations against trade unionists have fluctuated from year to year dropped and risen. However, there is no indication that the security situation has improved -- in 2003 death threats against trade unionists almost doubled and impunity in cases of human rights violations against trade unionists is almost guaranteed. Concern for the security of trade unionists in Colombia is heightened, not only by the latest killing of Gabriel Remolina and members of his family, but by the on-going failure to bring to justice those who kill and threaten trade unionists.

Amnesty International is concerned that the only means of improving the security situation faced by trade unionists is to ensure full implementation of United Nations human rights recommendations and for the International Labour Conference in June 2004 to ensure that it commits to close monitoring of the human rights crisis facing trade unionists in Colombia.