US Fuels Colombia's Dirty War Against Unions

In mid-March, Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Victor Hugo Orcasita were riding the company bus from their jobs at the Loma coal mine in northern Colombia. Locarno and Orcasita were chairman and vice-chairman of the union at the mine.

The bus was stopped by 15 gunmen, some in military uniforms. They began checking the workers' identification, and when they found the two union leaders, pulled them off the bus.

One of the gunmen shot Locarno in the face, as his fellow workers watched in horror. Orcasita was taken off into the woods at the side of the road. There he was tortured. When his body was later found, his fingernails had been torn off.

Locarno and Orcasita had made repeated pleas to their employer, Drummond Co. of Birmingham, Alabama, for protection. Just a week before the assassinations, the union demanded that Drummond provide security for its workers and abide by a previous agreement allowing them to sleep overnight at the mine. The company refused to allow the men to stay.

Protesting the deaths, 1,200 miners at Loma stopped work. In Colombia, labor activism is often punished with death. By mid-May, 44 union leaders had been violently murdered this year alone. Last year assassinations cost the lives of 129 others. The National Labor School reports that 1,500 have been killed in the past decade. Out of every five unionists killed in the world, three are Colombian, according to a recent U.S. union report.


The wave of violence is made possible by growing U.S. aid to the Colombian armed forces. Under "Plan Colombia," the U.S. has funneled over $1 billion into the country, almost entirely in the form of military assistance. Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world. Both Colombian and U.S. unions say this money funds a dirty war against all critics of the Colombian social and economic order, including unionists. This spring, the United Steel Workers sent a delegation to Colombia in the wake of the murders of Locarno Rodriguez and Orcasita.

The delegation met with leaders of the main Colombian labor federation, the CUT. Leo Gerard, USW president, warned the U.S. government that "we are strongly opposed to the amount of military aid being sent to the Colombian Army when unionists and innocent people are being killed by the very military forces we are financing."

The police commander for Cesar Province blamed Colombia's rightist paramilitaries, the United Defense Groups (AUC), for the two murders. But the paramilitaries are closely linked to the Colombian armed forces, says Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch. "The Colombian military and intelligence apparatus...look at unionists as subversives," says Kirk.

Roberto Molino of the Colombian Commission of Jurists told a delegation of U.S. unionists that "in the case of the paramilitaries, you cannot underestimate the collaboration of government forces."

The AUC is also backed by some elements of the business and economic elite behind the scenes. "There are powerful economic interests that support the paramilitaries," says Kirk, "and they do target unionists."


Coal union leaders are not the only targets.

Just days after the Loma murders, two leaders of the electrical workers union, Andres Granados and Jaime Sanchez, were gunned down. In mid-March, Eugenio Sanchez Diaz, a union activist in the oil town of Barrancabermeja, was dragged from his home and shot in the street. On the last day of March, Jaime Alberto Duque Castro, leader of a cement workers union, was kidnapped by armed gunmen. Amnesty International accused the AUC.

Ricardo Orozco, vice president of the Hospital Workers' Union, appeared on a list of 50 union leaders in Barranquilla circulated by the paramilitary death squads. He was shot in April, and his death was followed by two days of national labor protest.



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

Unionists hold the AUC responsible for almost all the union assassinations. The violence against unionists is part of a larger context of violence against community leaders, human rights activists, and advocates for social change generally.

According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, 6,000 Colombians were killed as the result of social and political violence in 2000. The CCJ attributes 80 percent of the cases to the paramilitaries, 5 percent directly to the government, and 15 percent to leftwing guerillas.


The Colombian government views union activity as a threat because it challenges economic policies. The restructuring pushed by the International Monetary Fund in Colombia is inciting a wave of labor resistance that is being met by violent repression.

Colombia is under pressure from the IMF and World Bank to cut the public sector budget, causing mass terminations. In January the government announced measures that would close many state agencies, laying off 42,000 workers. The money would be used to pay the country's debt to foreign banks and lending institutions.

In March, the General Confederation of Democratic Workers organized a 24-hour strike of 700,000 workers, including 300,000 teachers and education employees, protesting mass layoffs.

The Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE) struck again on May 15 for 48 hours, over a proposal to cut the education budget by $340 million. Health care workers also joined the strike. On June 7, tens of thousands of Colombian workers took to the streets in marches across the country, opposing the IMF.

Being a teacher union activist in Colombia is as dangerous as being a coal mine leader. Since 1986, 418 educators have been murdered. In May two teachers union activists and a university union activist were killed.

Another IMF mandate, privatization, has been just as bitterly resisted. The union at the government corporation EMCALI, which provides garbage, water and electricity to Cali city residents, has fought the company's sell-off. One of the union's activists, Carlos Eliecer Prado, was killed in May.


Last year the AFL-CIO called for ending military assistance to Colombia. Labor's strong reaction to the Colombian murders stands in contrast to its relative silence during the Reagan administration-sponsored wars in Central America in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

During that era, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland tried to suppress criticism of U.S. foreign policy in union ranks and to stop local efforts to organize support for Salvadoran unionists.

During the cold war, Kirkland and other labor conservatives accused most Colombian unions of being too left-wing. In turn the Colombians, like many third world labor federations, accused the AFL-CIO of supporting only anti-communist unions which defended U.S. foreign policy.

Today, U.S. unions want relations with all sectors of Colombian labor. "Union rights are human rights and our union will fight to protect them everywhere," says Gerard. "We demand that the Colombian government protect all unionists in their country and do everything in its power to bring these assassins to justice."

David Bacon is a labor writer and photographer and a former union organizer.