May Day in Colombia

Mayday Colombia

“The peace of the rich, is a war against the poor”
graffitti on a wall in central Medellin

Despite the horrors which face those fighting for better societies across the world, there are few countries on earth where trade union leaders can only access their offices by climbing out of a bullet proof jeep, surrounded by bodyguards holding semi-automatic weapons, to walk through a metal room equipped with electronic steel gates and finally start work in a bomb proof office. This is not a description of a poverty-stricken central African state or a ‘basket case’ banana republic. This is one of Latin America’s oldest democracies. This is a country with some of the most desirable commodities and richest soils in the world. This is a country with which the British Government has extensive relations and investments. This is Colombia.       

One teacher or lecturer has been killed every single week in Colombia this year. From 27 teachers assassinated in 1999, 83 were murdered in 2002 this reached. This makes organising in FECODE – Colombia’s biggest union – virtually impossible in many areas of the country. 95% of these abuses are carried out by paramilitary death squads – extreme right armed militias which have documented links to the official armed forces and the authorities. A special paramilitary group called “Death to Trade Unionists” has been established. We read a death threat from this group to a teacher at the University of Navarre. Why does it happen? “Because they know they can get away with it” one victim’s relative told us. Impunity from prosecution is 95% in Colombia.

Statistics are difficult to imagine. It is difficult to get beyond the idea that this terror applies to a handful of radical union leaders who place themselves in total opposition to the government. So instead we might want to picture the university porter who was going about his duties on campus when a 2 motorbikes drove up and opened fire on him – 2 bullets to the head, 3 to the body. Or the school teacher shot 5 times through his windscreen as he drove home with his wife. Or the hundreds of teachers killed, threatened, disappeared or forced to flee their homes for the destitution of their nearest city, up and down the country, every single year.
For every  case of assassination against, there are hundreds of cases of displacement – teachers fleeing their homes on pain of death. One high school social sciences teacher from Risaralda Department, near the city of Peirera, received her first death threat in 1987 when she received a condolence card inviting her to her own funeral. This was followed by phone calls, letters and people following her home. She knows of teachers being shot in front of their pupils.

Another teacher worked in a school outside Bogota for 23 years. Persecution began 15 years ago. Her house was raided many times. Like all persecuted trade unionists, she is accused of being a guerrilla – a tactic that normally means you are being set up for “cleansing” operations. Her two teenage daughters were also targeted. She told us matter-of-factly how her husband was kidnapped and then killed by paramilitaries. Her daughters were not even able to go to the cemetery to see their father’s grave.

Teachers and lecturers are not the only members of society targeted – it also applies to progressive lawyers, priests, students, any form of trade unionist, or just small farmers who happen to live in the wrong area – usually near an oil pipeline. The Department of Arauca has been turned into a militarised zone by the government – what one teacher described as a “laboratory for war”. In the first 8 months of militarisation 3,000 have been arrested, there have been 1,300 raids on people’s house and 90,00 people have had their details entered into a security database.
This is a country in which protest is being outlawed, in which anyone who questions authority is labelled a terrorist. People who try to defend public education, or workplace rights, or simply the right to life, place themselves in the line of fire.

One of the teachers we met believes they were targeted because of their social work in very poor neighbourhoods. She was horrified by the so-called “social cleansing” operations now happening in her region. She can no longer go out at night or weekends. Social divisions are now so deep in Colombia that War on Want’s solution to conflict and war – a war on poverty – has been perversely turned on its head. We heard some wealthy students from Bogotá calling for a “war on the poor” to save Colombian society – a chilling reminder of the “social cleansing” operations already underway in parts of this country – the murder of street children, prostitutes, homosexuals, petty criminals, transvestites.     

Disappearances are even more effective instruments of terror and oppression than assassinations. They are “a form of torture for the victim’s whole family” as we were told by a representative of a relatives group, which has itself become a target of the paramilitaries. Families cannot lay their loved ones to rest and begin to grieve. More concretely, there is no payout from life insurance and the family’s income is often gone, leaving their loved ones not only tortured by the disappearance, but also destitute. As we were told “for each single person kidnapped, the life on a whole family is ruined”. 

In the past five years 5,000 people have ´disappeared´ at the hands of paramilitaries. Most of the disappeared are eventually found dead – their bodies bearing the marks of the most horrific torture imaginable, stories which you expect from the terror regimes of El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. 

The Government’s response is that these are all lies: the disappeared have run off to the guerrillas, or been kidnapped, or they have run away with their lover. It is difficult to imagine a more cold-hearted response to the disappearance of a family member, but it is a response which enables the government to stand up to its responsibilities under international law.   

Students are also prime targets. Chalk outlines of bodies are drawn on the ground at the entrance to the National University in Bogota, representing students assassinated and disappeared by the terror infrastructure over the last 10 years. At least 2 university student leaders have already been killed his year. In a particularly worrying development, students at the University of Altantico in Antioquia were assassinated in front of a classroom in which they were being taught.

“The student movement has been historically effected by violence, but in the 1990s repression started getting really severe”  a group of law students at the National University explained “and it is directly related to resistance within the small number of public universities against privatisation and militarisation of the university system”. 

In the city of Cucuta, paramilitaries imposed a curfew  on young people going out after 10.30. Night-school students had given up their courses in fear. We heard that women students had been banned from wearing tight tops and jeans. Punishment was meted out by acid being thrown at the offending students, or a knife being used to cut the bare skin on their stomach.

Universities are also being incorporated into President Uribe’s “informer network”. Reminiscent of policies pursued in what are normally described as police states,  Uribe is aiming to build a million-person network of eyes and ears for the Colombian state. This is being pursued with particular vigour on campuses where we were told “there’s always someone ready to point out student leaders”. In the last 5 years between 60 and 70- student leaders have been disappeared.

These horrors cannot be seen in isolation from the economic policies of the government. In particular labour reforms currently under discussion are aimed at flexibility in the labour market and pensions industry, weakening the right to collective bargaining, privatisation and a pay freeze. The government has signed a development package with the IMF which will increase the tax burden on the poorest while aimed at the liquidation of social security. Private companies are being brought into the education sector and an economic policy is underway which aims to privatise higher education. Teacher numbers have fallen from 312,000 to 280,000. Recruitment is frozen – when teachers leave their jobs for whatever reason they’re not replaced.  Many teachers who have retained jobs have had their contacts changed from full-time, permanent employment to temporary contracts. In 1990 around 90% of university workers were employed on permanent contracts. This has now fallen to around 10%. The new temporary contracts are revocable at a moment’s notice without the need for a reason. 

The mass media is controlled by a tiny handful of people and either ignores or distorts the conflict to make it appear that the main human rights issue in the country is the kidnapping of the very rich by left-wing guerrilla groups. This is reflected in our own Western media. Given that one teacher is  assassinated per week, it is interesting that the international media picked up on the one that happened during our delegation. Is it coincidence that this just happened to be a rare occurrence when a teacher was assassinated by a left-wing guerrilla group?  

Former trade union leader and now congressman Wilson Borjca, who walks with a limp from when he narrowly escaped an attempt on his life, puts Colombia’s situation in context. Borjca sums up the situation in one phrase “Colombians are so poor because Colombia is so rich”. Colombia possess 16 or the world’s 22 most desirable resources, most notably oil and gold. Yet just over 1% of the population still own 58% of the land here while shanty towns rapidly expanding to give very basic shelter to Colombia’s 2 million displaced people. 13 million people earn less than $40 a month, 3.5 million children are outside education and half of the country is unable to access health care. Meanwhile increasing amounts of money are poured into paying off the national debt and building the security forces.

Uribe is desperate to sign up to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA) which will create the world’s largest single market, and the effect of which will be to solidify Latin America’s place as a source of cheap raw materials, labour and markets. Already the world trading system has seen Colombia’s food imports increase from 1 million tons in 1990 to 8 million tons today. A country of incredibly rich soil where crops thrive, now imports basic food stuffs including corn due to unfair competition. While the US’s agricultural subsidies will be slowly phased out after 2005, Borjca fears that by that time Colombians will already have lost their ability to compete, as mega-corporations buy up the country from bankrupt small farmers.

We got a taste of this desperation ourselves. In Aguablanca outside Cali families live cooped up, often 2 or 3 to a 3m-by-3m area, the beds are orange crates if they can’t find anything better, with a small piece of polythene covering their “home”. Broken glass litters the ground where 360 children play in bare feet – many of them have sores and other signs of infection. There are no lights and no heat. There is a single tap to serve 750 families. This is not the result of a flood or other natural disaster, or even lack of government funds. It is just some of the thousands and thousands who are everyday are forced to move from their homes, their friends and their possessions by violence in which the  “democratic”  state plays a key role.

The government’s reaction to these desperate people was seen in March when security forces came with bulldozers and demolished the settlement, including all the private possessions that the destitute had managed to bring with them. With no other option, the residents built the slum up again, and are still harassed by the police on a regular basis. But it’s better than the fear that faced them at home. Several days before we arrived the authorities told four families that it was safe for them to return home. They were murdered on the day of our visit. Like the students in Bogotá who believe in a war on the poor, like those the paramilitaries socially cleanse outside the big cities, the poor in Colombia – a large section of the population – are treated as if their poverty was a consciously chosen option designed purely to inconvenience the rich.

The state has a key role in this conflict. When talking to teachers in conflict-ridden Medellin, a US-supplied black hawk helicopter drowned out conversation as it flew out towards the poor neighbourhoods, home to hundreds of thousands of Colombia’s poor majority. Colombia is now the biggest recipient of US military assistance outside Israel and Egypt, and their equipment is clearly not only being used to fight the “war on drugs” which provided the initial pretext for the stepped up aid. Helicopters have been firing shells into densely packed neighbourhoods. It is reported that in one recent incident 20 civilians were killed and no guerrillas. It appears to be a  strategy well known from the Vietnam War: drain the water and you kill the fish. The fish are the guerrillas, the water the unfortunate. So far Uribe’s state of internal unrest has unleashed a huge wave of raids, security measurers and violence. But since it passed into effect many more community and social leaders have been killed than guerrillas.

It is when you meet ordinary Colombians from the neighbourhoods of Medellin that you being to sense the real terror that oozes from every pour of this society. Most of them are displaced from elsewhere in Colombia – driven from their homes on pain of death. But only to find new terror. Many of them find it impossible to leave their homes, and the rest usually have curfews imposed by the paramilitaries who control their communities. We met a group of people who needed to leave our meeting at 5.30 in order to get back top their houses before curfew was imposed.  

One woman we met from one of these poor neighbourhoods explained to us that her son – a young man of only 20 years old – had been arrested following a raid on her community on 13th January 2003. She had received no information on his whereabouts whatsoever. Because she is displaced herself, she cannot even afford to pay the bus fair to visit him, let alone the healthcare and board payments that he needs in the prison.

In this new security regime everyone it seems is fair game. Despite living in a ‘democratic’ country, no-one we spoke to felt they had any rights whatsoever. “The government doesn’t need to give us a reason for arrests” one woman told us “they justify everything by talking about the insurgency”. 

Trade union reports from Colombia read like a horror story. “The most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist/ oil workers/ public service workers/ teacher/ lecturer”. All trade unionists we spoke to believed “there are even more dark times ahead”. The terror is not a matter for a few courageous leaders. But there is also something incredibly hopeful. For if fear and terror stretch to the base of society here, then so do courage and hope.  Despite the most dramatic frontal assault on social organisation, ordinary Colombians refuse to have the bonds of society broken. Trade union, under attack in their own right, become social movements, protecting not just their own members but fighting poverty at the same time. Communities build up around displacement and disappearance and fear and terror. The people we met were surely amongst the bravest people in the world – summed up in the slogan “kill 1 of us, and 10 more will fight back” – but it is not one or two people, it is a whole society.

Fascism is not a word which should be used lightly, but it is term we heard again and again to describe the direction of President Uribe’s policies. Hope can only be pushed so far and its rapidly running out in Colombia. They look to our solidarity as a last defence against the horror film this country has become.

And we have real power. It is not just the US pouring “security assistance” into Colombia. The UK Government, which refers to Colombia as “one of Latin America’s oldest democracy” – has excellent relations with Uribe’s Government – ‘a President doing his best in a very difficult situation to restore order in his country’. The UK Government has even given military assistance to Colombia – though try finding out where exactly its gone to and you may find that “open government” rapidly closes down. British companies are amongst the biggest investors in Colombia. The pressure we can bring to bear here will be critical.   

Meeting Wilson Borjca I remembered an urgent action for him that had come across my desk many months, and many urgent actions ago. I have got used to ignoring many of these actions they now come so frequently. But meeting Wilson I realised that each one of these that we take, doesn’t merely save the life of one person – as worthy as goal as that is in itself. It is an act of solidarity with the whole Colombian trade union movement, because it keeps alive hope of social change in Colombia. It keeps alive hope of a better world for the destitute yet courageous people of this terror state that we call democracy.

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