Colombia: petroleum workers leader murdered

Two unidentified men on a motorcycle gunned down Colombian labor leader Milton Enrique Rivas Parra on Dec. 11 in Puerto Gaitán, a city in the central department of Meta. He was hit by 17 bullets, according to his family. Rivas was a leader in the Meta section of the Workers’ Labor Union of the Petroleum Industry (USO) and in a local grassroots organization, the Villa Ortiz Community Action Council. He had been receiving death threats, which he first reported to Colombian prosecutors on Aug. 25.

The USO has been carrying out an organizing drive over the last year at several companies, including the Canadian-Colombian multinational Pacific Rubiales. Vivas was involved in organizing at Termotecnica Coindustrial S A, a subcontractor for Cepcolsa, the Colombian subsidiary of the Spanish company CEPSA. Negotiations between the company and the union were held in November; the newly formed European industrial union federation IndustriALL joined with the USO negotiating committee as a demonstration of international support. But the talks broke off on Nov. 24 without an agreement.

Citing unidentified sources, the Meta police claimed that Vivas may have quit the union a month before his death and may have been involved in an argument with another unionist on Dec. 10. Labor leaders dismissed the implication that Vivas’ murder resulted from disputes within the union, noting that 2,500 labor leaders and activists have been killed in Colombia in less than 20 years, largely by rightwing forces. On Dec. 14 the USO wrote that its members would continue a strike against Termotecnica despite the “tense situation” in Puerto Gaitán after Vivas’ death. “The workers and leaders of the USO unanimously reject the accusations by the police,” the union said, “and warn that they will file complaints with the relevant national and international organizations, where they will present recordings in which members of the ESMAD [the police force’s Mobile Anti-Riot Squad] announce that they will murder the participants in the protest against Termotecnica.” (IndustriALL website, Nov. 30; El Tiempo, Bogotá, Dec. 12; USO website, Dec. 14; Rebelión, Spain, Dec. 16)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 16.