Assisatinations of union leaders continue in Colombia


Oscar Figueroa, Simtraemcali union representative to the International Labour Office has returned from Geneva, where he met with leaders of the Union Freedoms Committee, the administrative council of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and union leaders from around the world.

Oscar Figueroa was once the head of the Human Rights Commission of the Simtraemcali union. Threatened with his life, he had to leave his country in 2006. Our Emergency Fund assisted him with the costs of his and his family’s voyage to and their resettlement in Lyon. He is a member of Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l’Homme.



Can you tell the reasons why you left Colombia in 2006 ?


« I was working with the company Emcali in Cali, which supplies basic services like water, electricity, telecommunications, and sanitation to the community. In 1998 the government decided to privatise it. The union was opposed to this because of concerns that privatisation would mean job losses, and especially that Emcali would stop investing in the city’s social services. In fact, a part of the company’s profits is invested in poor parts of town – in schools, hospitals and roads. They cracked down on us in 2004. The management fired 51 union members, six of them union leaders. They accused us of associating with guerrilla groups (the FARC and the ELN) and mounted a legal process against us. I myself was arrested, sentenced and detained for three months before being acquitted in an appeal.
At the same time, paramilitaries assassinated 30 of our members. When the threats were aimed at me, I decided to leave the country like numerous other friends.».



After the election of Juan Manuel Santos to the Presidency of the Republic in 2006, did things change ?

« There was no change with respect to human rights. Remember that Santos was the Minister of Defense in the Uribe government. The phenomenon of “false positives” came about on his watch: The army recruited young people in middle-class areas with false promises of jobs, killed them and after having dressed them up as guerrillas, announced their death in combat. According to the UN, 1,800 young people fell victim to this between 2007 and 2009. Some of their mothers have lodged complaints.
Today, Santos continues to fight against investigations of communal graves discovered in a number of regions in the country, some of them containing up to 2,000 bodies, like at Macarena (Meta department). Graves like this, in places where guerrillas are not present, suggest the mobilisation of a great deal of human and material means. It suggests the establishment of a frightening schema, a crime of the State.
Where unions are concerned, Colombia is still the country where the number of union members assassinated is the greatest (55% of union members killed worldwide are Colombian). The 31 May 2011, Carlos Castro, a union technician was killed in Cali on his way back from work. Two days later, Master Herman Dario Escobar, a union lawyer and former politician in Cali, died from injuries he sustained when a number of men shot at him ».



Meanwhile, paramilitary groups were dissolved and a number of their leaders put in prison...


« It’s true that through the National Demobilisation Plan, a number of groups disarmed. Numerous paramilitaries benefitted from being put to use. Certain leaders were extradited to the US under the pretext of negotiations with American courts: their sentences would be reduced if they agreed to help with dismantling cocaine trafficking networks. Despite the official protests of the Colombian Supreme Court, these leaders will not be pursued for crimes committed in the country. Others were imprisoned in Colombia where they enjoyed privileged conditions that allowed them to continue to lead their new, reformed paramilitary groups under the name of ‘Black Eagles’. There would be 22,000 paramilitaries today.



 Regarding respect for worker’s rights, Colombia signed conventions 87 and 98 of the ILO. Have legal activities been conducted to ensure that they are respected ?


« The Colombian legal system has spoken out but the Colombian nation doesn’t respect its signature. The State Council said that the 2004 firings were illegal and the judges ordered the reintegration of the union members.
The ILO said that the firings were arbitrary and violated union law. They told the government to intervene so as to ensure that union members would be reintegrated, but the government didn’t do anything. ».




In a context like this where union activists are exposed to the threat of death, how does one explain how the union movement keeps its power and motivation, in Cali and elsewhere ?


« We want to live in a country where the life of all Colombians will be respected, where the right to health, education, and housing will be recognised and acted upon. Killings are a huge loss, irreparable for this country. That needs to stop. We want to create a country where our children can flourish, where they will no longer be victims of a conflict that doesn’t concern them, where they will not be tempted whilst they are young to join an armed group of which they know neither the origin, nor the objectives ».