Published: 11/06/2007

Scarcely a day passes in Colombia without new evidence linking paramilitary atrocities to the government of President Uribe. As new mass graves are exhumed, “demobilized” paramilitaries protected by the government tell of rigorous, systematic training in cutting and disembowling their victims. If the trail of command has yet to directly implicate Uribe, enough higher echelon officials have been identified to document a dense network of impunity headquartered in the presidency.

While government spokespeople inevitably portray Colombia’s horrific violence as a national tragedy affecting all sectors of society, one group in particular has been a consistent target of the killers. Colombia’s trade unions offer a model of social organization based on democratic solidarity in a society wracked by poverty, exclusion, and violence. This alone is reason to draw fire from all sides in Colombia’s many-sided civil war. The murder earlier this year of Carmen Cecilia Santana Romaña, a national officer of the rural workers’ union SINTRAINAGRO, whose members harvest the Colombian bananas sold on supermarket shelves, brought to 435 the number of that union’s members and officers who have been killed. Over 2,200 trade unionists were killed in the period 1991 to 2006. More trade unionists were killed in 2006 than in 2005, and in both years the number of murdered trade unionists exceeded the combined total of that for all other countries in the world.

No more than a handful of these crimes were ever investigated; fewer still resulted in prosecutions, even fewer in convictions. In Colombia, impunity is a way of life.

The Human Rights Department of the national trade union center CUT recently held the first-ever national meeting in support of the victims and surviving family members of the concentrated violence which has been directed against the country’s trade union organizations.

Unless the rights of the victims are protected, warns the CUT, there will be neither peace, justice nor redress. The victims of anti-union violence must be clearly identified as such and “the intellectual and material perpetrators” of all acts of violence systematically identified, investigated and prosecuted. The victims’ families must be provided “comprehensive, equitable and effective reparations”, stated the CUT, as well as full and effective protection, as a matter of national policy.

The CUT resolved to build a national network of labour and human rights groups in support of these basic demands, and to draw for their implementation on the support of the international trade union movement and the United Nations’ International Labour Organization and High Commissioner for Human Rights – the last two among the international bodies at which the Uribe government has consistently thumbed its nose.

The Bush administration’s Plan Colombia provides massive support to a military and security apparatus whose links to the paramilitaries are being freshly documented on a daily basis. Plan Colombia marries institutionalized impunity with aerial fumigation in a “war on drugs” experienced by Colombian farmers and peasants as an indiscriminate assault on their land and livelihoods. Uribe’s “Justice and Peace Act” provides immunity to killers who’ve traded in their paramilitary fatigues for civilian gear. Neither Plan Colombia nor “Justice and Peace” provide an escape route for Colombians weary of violence.

The CUT proposals, on the other hand, challenge and confront the impunity which underlies and supports the continuing carnage. They open the way for a broad mobilization against fear and institutionalized violence, and deserve the backing of all who support the long and difficult struggle for democracy in Colombia.