Anti-labor violence rises in Colombia: House testimony

The Colombian government has not done enough to stem the rising violence against labor union leaders or address the backlog of labor union leader killings, witnesses told the US House Education and Labor Committee Feb. 12. A leading Colombian labor think tank, the National Labor School, also testified that killings of union members jumped by 25% in 2008.

“Sadly, Colombia has been the most dangerous place in the world to belong to a labor union for decades,” said Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the committee. “In some recent years, there have been more labor killings in Colombia than the rest of the world combined.”

The committee heard testimony from human rights advocates who said that contrary to statements from the Colombian government, violence against labor union leaders is increasing and very little has done to fully investigate and prosecute the backlog of anti-labor murder cases.

“Over the last couple of decades, Colombia’s unions have suffered extreme violence, mostly at the hands of right-wing paramilitary groups that have deliberately targeted unions,” said Maria McFarland, a Latin America specialist with Human Rights Watch. McFarland said that although there was an official demobilization of paramilitaries several years ago, new groups have emerged that similarly target labor unions. “The bulk of the threats received by unionists last year have been signed by groups purporting to be paramilitaries, such as the Black Eagles.”

According to Colombia’s National Labor School, the government has not aggressively investigated and prosecuted the approximately 2,700 killings of union leaders that have occurred over the past two decades. At Colombia’s current pace, it would take 37 years to prosecute the backlog of cases, the National Labor School estimates.

“Despite the great emphasis the current administration is placing on security, after a few years of declining murder rates, violence against labor unions showed a steep increase in 2008,” said José Luciano Sanin, director of the Escuela Nacional Sindical (National Labor School). “More than 60% of the all murdered unionists in the world are Colombians. The murder rate of unionists in Colombia is five times that of the rest of the countries of the world, including those countries with dictatorships that have banned union activity.”

Human rights advocates in Colombia contend that many of these killings were planned the leadership of the country’s right-wing paramilitary organization, the AUC, as well as the Colombian military, and national police. Although some prosecutions are being conducted, witnesses testified, prosecutions often stop short from holding those who conspired, ordered or paid for anti-labor murders accountable.

“It is a systematic pattern that in all of these criminal acts, the public prosecutor is content to determine the responsibility of the material authors, leaving out the intellectual authors, who are the most important, given that they are the ones who sponsor, order the executions, put up the money, and always remain in impunity,” said José Nirio Sánchez, a former Colombian special court judge for labor homicide cases. “Thus, these crimes will not stop, since the true perpetrators are not prosecuted.”

Witnesses highlighted an example of prosecutor negligence in the killing of Jorge Dario Hoyos Franco, a well-known Colombian labor leader. Although two individuals were quickly arrested and convicted of killing, the investigation failed to hold those who actually ordered the killing of Hoyos accountable. The attorney general’s office (Fiscalía), which investigated the killing, even advanced the unsupported theory that Hoyos was killed as a result of an affair with a suspect’s wife.

“Despite the two sentences in which the Colombian judges have ruled that my father was murdered for being a labor unionist, the prosecutor’s office, in order to continue hiding the truth, maintained the hypothesis of a crime of passion up until August of 2008,” said Yessika Hoyos, daughter of Jorge Dario Hoyos Franco. “It took international pressure for the prosecutor’s office to acknowledge the truth with respect to the motive for the crime. We will continue to demand that the intellectual authors be investigated, as the murder of unionists in Colombia is the result of a systematic government policy.”

Yessika Hoyos continue to pursue those who order her father’s killing. “We know there is evidence of other perpetrators, including members of the national army. The investigation remains open, but with no follow-up of the evidence as requested, and no identification of other possible perpetrators,” she said. (Committee on Education and Labor press release, Feb. 12)

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