Trade Secret

WHEN HIS BODY was recovered, it was clear that Aury Sara Marrugo spent his last hours alive in agony. His gums had been butchered. A blowtorch had been used to sear the flesh under his arms and the soles of his feet. Over 70 small incisions were found on his corpse, and strong acid had been applied to his abdomen. At some point during the savagery, a single bullet was fired at close range into the middle of his face, ending his misery. Sara had been “disappeared” on November 30, 2001. His remains, and the grisly warning they were designed to convey to his colleagues, turned up the following week.

Sara drew his final, tortured breaths in the town of Cartagena, on the northwest coast of Colombia. His executioners, members of a right-wing paramilitary group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), wanted his fate to be public knowledge. According to a statement by the AUC, Sara was executed because he was thought to be a member of one of Colombia’s armed opposition groups, the National Liberation Army, or Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Others familiar with the paramilitaries and their role in Colombia’s long-running civil war point to a more likely explanation for Sara’s murder. He was president of Unión Sindical Obrera (USO) — the Oil Workers’ Trade Union, Cartagena Section — and was therefore guilty of a crime that cost nearly 170 Colombian men and women their lives last year: he was a trade unionist.

Since 1985, over 3800 union workers and leaders have been assassinated in Colombia, making it by far the most dangerous place on earth to fight for workers’ rights. In 2001, according to the United Workers’ Central, or Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), the country’s 600,000-member central trade union, there were 169 assassinations of union workers, 30 more attempted assassinations, 79 “disappeared” or kidnapped, and over 400 reports of threats and intimidations. And, as of the third week in January, this year shows every indication of keeping pace with 2001’s horrific toll: already there have been six assassinations, including Maria Ropero, president of the Union of Community Mothers, who was shot 13 times. According to human-rights advocates at Amnesty International, in Colombia “the security and armed forces, as well as their paramilitary allies, often accuse trade unionists of being guerrilla sympathizers or auxiliaries.” They are frequently referred to as “military targets.”

The leaders of Colombia’s labor unions believe they are being targeted because they openly denounce the violence and unjust distribution of wealth that takes such a heavy toll on the majority of their country’s population. As the most prominent members of Colombian civil society, trade unionists — especially representatives of the threatened public sector — find themselves at the point where four very powerful vectors meet. First, there are North American and European transnational corporations, which look to take advantage of Colombia’s vast natural resources and growing, low-wage labor pool. Second, there is the Colombian government, including the armed forces and national police, whose stability is threatened by the civil war, and whose stated goals are to eliminate the leftist guerrillas and enter the global economy. Third, there is the US government, which has started to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to the Colombian military, ostensibly to fight the “War on Drugs,” but whose desire to protect US-based corporations operating abroad is well-known. And, last, there are the paramilitaries, a group whose various links to the country’s elites, the transnational corporations, the Colombian military, and, by extension, the US government are a matter of record. Their primary function has traditionally been to perform the dirty work of torturing and killing Colombians like Aury Sara.

COMPOUNDING THE ONGOING tragedy of Colombia’s embattled trade unionists is the plight of the country itself. Now in the 38th year of a civil war between leftist guerrillas and the government, which claims the lives of more than 3000 people annually, and having recently become the prime target in the United States government’s “War on Drugs,” Colombia’s 40 million citizens confront a daily level of violence beyond the comprehension of most Americans. Further exacerbating the situation is the two-tiered class structure of Colombian society, in which the handful of wealthy elites who own most of the land and resources have an equally disproportionate role in shaping governmental policies. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent, with underemployment affecting many more. More than half the country’s inhabitants live in poverty. Finally, there is the role of international financial institutions in Colombia: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is insisting on extensive privatization of the country’s state-owned enterprises in order to pay off its external debt, which means more foreign corporations investing in, and taking profits out of, the Colombian economy, plunging it further into poverty.

For decades, leftist guerrillas such as the ELN and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), have tried to loosen the wealthy landowners’ stranglehold on Colombia’s economic life. Heavily influenced by Marxism’s revolutionary ideals and rhetoric, the guerrillas were committed to a program of wealth and land redistribution, and resorted to kidnapping rich landowners and charging ransoms, as well as levying taxes on local businessmen’s commerce, to fund their operations. By the mid 1980s, the ranchers, landowners, and drug barons who were frequent targets of the guerrillas decided to fund a private army of vigilantes to defend themselves, giving rise to the paramilitary movement in Colombia. For several years, the Colombian Armed Forces openly trained, equipped, and operated alongside the paramilitaries. Together, they waged war not only on the guerrillas, but on anyone suspected of supporting them, which led to widespread atrocities. Ultimately, in 1989, the Colombian government, facing international condemnation due to the paramilitaries’ escalating human-rights violations, declared them to be illegal.

Throughout the 1990s, profits from the drug trade (derived mostly from the sale of cocaine) fueled the growth of both the paramilitaries and the guerrillas. The paramilitaries also benefited from US military aid to the Colombian government, which they accessed through their connections to the military. Despite the 1989 ruling against the right-wing death squads, they continued to collude with the Colombian Armed Forces against the guerrilla insurgency. In reality, far from shunning the paramilitaries, the military simply shifted its dirty work — the assassination of trade unionists, human-rights workers, outspoken professors, radical students, or anyone who questioned the status quo — onto the paramilitaries. According to Andrew Miller, the former advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA, “these missions have been outsourced to paramilitary groups that operate in heavily militarized areas and coordinate their operations with the army. The proportion of abuses directly attributable to the armed forces has declined in recent years, while abuses by their paramilitary allies have escalated dramatically.” Although Colombia consistently had the worst human-rights record in the hemisphere, military aid continued to flow from the US. Toward the end of the decade, there was a sudden and dramatic shift in the amount of money headed to South America.

The US government spent close to a billion dollars in the last two years arming and training the Colombian Armed Forces, purportedly to stem the flow of cocaine and heroin into the US, which consumes more than 90 percent of Colombia’s illicit drugs. “Plan Colombia,” signed into law by President Clinton on January 11, 2000, is a military-aid package that made Colombia the third-largest recipient of American military aid on the planet, behind Israel and Egypt. At the time the plan was proposed, human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch opposed it because of the high incidence of human-rights abuses by members of the Colombian military in previous years, in addition to their continuing involvement with the paramilitaries. At the same time, lawmakers were under intense lobbying pressure by corporations with interests in Colombia, including weapons manufacturers and oil and coal companies. Congress passed the plan, and Clinton waived the human-rights conditions that would normally have blocked the aid, citing “national-security interests.” Already, Colombian military has received $816 million in the form of arms, training, and helicopters to fight the “War on Drugs.” Another $399 million was approved for this fiscal year, with the Bush administration broadening “Plan Colombia” into the “Andean Regional Initiative.”

Colombian labor leaders and their allies look askance at the US government’s claim that the money flowing to Colombia is for drug interdiction. They foresee the relentless militarization of their country’s armed conflict resulting in a military state that will, conveniently enough, impose the kind of stability foreign investors require, and set an example for those who might otherwise balk at Washington’s economic agenda for the region. They claim that transnational corporations, whose lawyers drafted the “free-trade agreements,” (e.g., the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA) for much of Latin America with the countries’ finance ministers, want to eliminate organized labor’s influence, so that maximum profits can be extracted. William Mendoza, a leader in Colombia’s food and beverage workers’ union, SINALTRAINAL, puts it bluntly: “The motivation behind Plan Colombia is for the US to assure the best control of these countries and drown people in their own blood if they attempt to resist.” Mendoza’s union has joined the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund in a federal lawsuit against one of the US’s best-known corporations, Coca-Cola, charging it and two Colombian subsidiaries with complicity in the murder of union leader Isidro Segundo Gil.

On December 5, 1996, Gil, a member of his union’s executive board, was shot down by paramilitaries at the entrance to a Coke bottling plant in Carepa. The union was involved in contract negotiations at the time, and the following day, the AUC reappeared and demanded that all union members resign. They also destroyed the workers’ union hall, which was subsequently rebuilt and occupied by the paramilitaries. Mendoza, who is the human-rights chair of SINALTRAINAL, said that the US embassy and Coke’s headquarters in both Colombia and the US were informed about the incident. To date, however, no formal charges have been brought in the killings. “Unfortunately,” he explained, “impunity in this country is 100 percent.” Labor leaders are commonly assassinated in broad daylight, said Mendoza, who himself lives under threat of death by the paramilitaries: “The state says nothing about the killing of union leaders. It’s out in the open, the link between the paramilitaries and the military authorities.” Coke has denied the charges, and Mendoza said that the company has countersued the workers.

Charges of collusion with Colombia’s right-wing death squads have also been leveled at the Alabama-based Drummond Coal Company. At a January 21, 2002, meeting with the president of FUNTRAENERGETICA, an energy-workers union, more allegations of corporations targeting unionists came to light. The union’s leader, who did not want to be identified by name, said that the assassinations of three union leaders in 2001 were traceable to paramilitaries, and that the company did nothing to respond to workers’ repeated requests for protection. The union leaders were involved in negotiations at the time. “We have some serious denunciations about this case, because there is reason to believe the paramilitaries were involved,” he says. The story is depressingly familiar. In March, Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Victor Orcasita, the president and vice-president of SINTRAMIENERGETICA, a coal-miners union, were traveling by bus from their jobs at the Drummond mine in La Loma. The bus was stopped by a group of armed men, who searched the passengers until they found Locarno and Orcasita, who were promptly removed from the bus. Locarno was shot immediately in the face, and Orcasita was taken away. He was later found dead, and his body showed signs of torture. “The paramilitaries attack any worker who speaks out against what the owners want,” the unionist concludes. “Anyone who dares to speak out, asks for social justice, or refuses to conform is declared a military target.” Six months later, the president who succeeded Locarno, Gustavo Soler, was also killed by paramilitaries. No charges have been brought in the murders.

THE SPECTER of violence is nearly invisible outside the offices of the Regional Corporation for Human Rights, or Corporación Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (CREDHOS), located in Barrancabermeja, an oil town in the heart of Colombia that is home to USO, the country’s biggest union. The streets below, viewed from the second-story balcony that juts out above a triangular intersection known as the Eighth Diagonal, buzz with the kinds of activity seen in any medium-size city in South America. Taxis, minibuses, mopeds, and bicycles flow in opposite directions through the fork where the roads meet. Dozens of fruit carts, brightly hand-painted all the way down to their wheel hubs, squat side by side under two shade trees, which the small concrete island miraculously supports. An elderly man in a yellow hat steps from behind his cart, pours water on a rag, and starts to polish his oranges. Even the two young soldiers chatting with a young female vendor of scarves and handbags seem benign. But there are signs of the danger.

The thick steel grates and bulletproof glass that span the front of CREDHOS’ office are only the most obvious indicators of the danger there. Of the 130 community activists killed in the city of Barrancabermeja since the human-rights group was founded in 1987, five have been its own members. A member of Peace Brigades International, a non-governmental organization whose unarmed volunteers accompany threatened civilians in war zones, is on hand to make sure no one walks the streets below alone. A military-troop transport rumbles through the intersection, with half a dozen heavily armed men riding in the back. And off in the distance, rising above the street scene with mute indifference, are the smokestacks and gas flares of the state’s Ecopetrol refinery, whose entrance is 500 yards and a world away from the bulletproof doors of CREDHOS.

While union workers and the human-rights advocates who defend them live under constant threat of death with little or no protection from the state, Ecopetrol has not one, but two full battalions of the Colombian Armed Forces dedicated to ensuring the safety of its operations. In this regard, the Colombian state oil company is an appropriate symbol for the country as a whole — protection for profitable businesses while the domestic population suffers. German Plata is a project director for the Program for Peace and Development of the Middle Magdalena Region, named after the river that runs through Barrancabermeja. He lists the enormous natural wealth that his homeland possesses, including Ecopetrol’s oil, and poses a rhetorical question: “For an area with so many natural resources, there is great poverty. Seventy percent of the people have unsatisfied basic needs. Why?” With little hesitation, he provides the answer. “Because this is an extractive and exclusive economy. They extract our resources and the benefits stay in the hands of a few.” Of the $2 billion in oil wealth that Barrancabermeja generates each year, only $90 million stays in the local economy through Ecopetrol. The rest goes to foreign companies, such as the US’s Occidental Petroleum and Chevron/Texaco or England’s British Petroleum. Few realize that Colombia today is the 10th largest supplier of petroleum to the US. The numbers are similar for the cattle ranching and African-palm-tree cultivation that mostly drive the rest of the local economy — the overwhelming majority of the money generated leaves Colombia.

The leaders of the oil-workers union believe that one of the goals of the global economic system, at least as far as the corporations are concerned, is the elimination of organized labor. “A death penalty has been declared against union workers here,” says Mendoza. “When you kill a union leader, you destroy the union.” As international scrutiny has intensified, paramilitaries have been forced to focus more on union leaders, as opposed to indiscriminate mass executions of workers. “Globalization is trying to deny us our human rights,” says one of USO’s national-level leaders, whose life has been threatened and who also asked that his name not be published. “We have a very revolutionary history, and our union, especially, has been very hard hit by the state and the groups that operate outside ‘the law.’” He makes sure that the translation from Spanish reflects his belief that the paramilitaries that threaten him and his colleagues do so with the blessing of the Colombian government. “The political project being carried out here by the ultra-right is a state policy. This is why you see so much complicity on the part of the state with those who carry out the assassinations.” He refers to the high level of paramilitary violence in the region, which fell under the control of the right-wing squads just over a year ago. In addition to the presence in Barrancabermeja of the military battalions that protect Ecopetrol, there are two police stations, and an attorney general’s office. Yet the paramilitaries “control the life of this place,” according to CREDHOS executive director Regulo Modero.

“They have a permanent presence, permanent roadblocks,” he explains. “But the public forces haven’t done anything about it. There’s no logical explanation for the fact that the most militarized region of the country is controlled by the paramilitaries.” And they control it ruthlessly. The most infamous example in recent history occurred on May 16, 1998, when seven people were massacred by the paramilitaries on a soccer field. Another 25 were “disappeared” — taken away and never heard from again. According to Modero, they, too, were executed, cut into pieces with electric chainsaws, and thrown into the Magdalena river that flows through the barrios on the outskirts of town. Modero insists that state forces were involved in the massacre, and that the paramilitaries entered and exited the neighborhood where they committed the atrocities through a military checkpoint.

Military leaders deny any involvement between their forces and the paramilitaries, insisting that US taxpayer dollars are funding drug eradication, not the murder of trade unionists. Colonel Gilberto Ibarra, of Barrancabermeja’s Nueva Granada Battalion, says that “in terms of the paramilitaries, the Army commanders created a law to sanction the AUC sympathizers in the Armed Forces. They’re kicked out of the Army.” US officials are less emphatic in their denials, indicating that while there are no links “at the command level,” there are still instances of collusion. A high-level US Embassy officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declared that “there is a dedication to root these people out.” Others disagree. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Washington Office on Latin America issued a report last week stating that the “Colombian government’s progress against paramilitary groups has amounted to little more than rhetoric, unsupported by actions in the field designed either to break existing links between the military and paramilitary groups, prosecute the officers who support these links, or pursue those groups and their leaders effectively in the field.”

Colombian economist Hector Mondragón, who risks his life by criticizing his government’s policies, said in a January 20th interview in Bogota that “the farce of the ‘War on Drugs’ is reaching its conclusion.” He, too, feels that US backing of the Colombian military is driven much more by economic imperatives than by a desire to stop drugs, and that the “War on Terror” provides a better pre-text for our increasing military involvement in his native land. It looks like he was right. On February 5th, President George W. Bush, heeding calls from his Colombian counterpart Andres Pastrana to widen US involvement in his country’s civil war “to assure a continued flow of oil,” announced $98 million in additional military aid to Colombia. The money will go to train and arm soldiers to protect the “480-mile Cano-Limon oil pipeline, which carries oil to the Caribbean coast for Occidental Petroleum and other companies,” according to the Associated Press. US Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman told reporters: ”We are committed to help Colombians create a Colombia that is a peaceful, prosperous, drug-free, and terror-free democracy.” The working men and women of Colombia would say that giving more aid to their military is helping to create just the opposite.

Patrick Keaney is a Boston-based human rights activist and journalist who conducted interviews in Colombia from January 17-27, 2002. He can be reached at

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