Garry Leech is editor of Colombia Journal, author of Crude Interventions and Killing Peace, and coauthor of The People Behind Colombian Coal. A lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University, Leech lives in Nova Scotia. His account of being held captive by guerrillas, Beyond Bogotá, Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia, will be published by Beacon Press this fall.
There has been an ongoing debate in Washington about a potential free trade agreement with Colombia. The failure to implement a hemisphere-wide agreement—the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)—led President George W. Bush to push for a bilateral pact with his ideologically-aligned ally in Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe. The Bush administration signed a free trade pact with Colombia in November 2006, but congressional Democrats have stalled its ratification due to ongoing human rights abuses in Colombia, particularly against unionists.
The Bush administration repeatedly points to a recent reduction in the number of Colombian labor leaders killed as justification for the free trade agreement. In October 2007, U.S. State Department spokesperson, R. Nicholas Burns, declared, "Homicides of trade unionists have shown a steep decline…. Rather than condemning as insufficient the considerable progress already made by the Colombian people, we should help them consolidate that progress through expanded trade."
In the past 20 years, more than 3,000 Colombian unionists have been assassinated. In 2007, Colombia remained the most dangerous country in the world for unionists with thirty-nine labor leaders killed; a number significantly lower than the 197 assassinated in 2001—the year before President Uribe assumed office. Consequently, the Bush administration is clearly correct when it points out that there has been a marked decrease in the number of unionists killed under the Uribe administration.
However, while the Bush administration has focused on the significant decline in the number of Colombian unionists killed in recent years, it has ignored the principal reason for this decline: the decrease in the number of unionists killed is more a product of a war of attrition against organized labor than of policies implemented by the Uribe administration. In other words, more than 20 years of a dirty war waged against Colombia's unions has meant that there are fewer labor leaders left to kill and a diminished need to kill them.
The dirty war against Colombia's workers being waged by right-wing paramilitary death squads allied with the country's U.S.-backed military has, along with the implementation of neoliberal economic reforms, devastated union organizations and their membership. More than 195 trade union organizations were dissolved between 1991 and 2001, with union membership declining by more than 100,000 workers during that period. In fact, with only four percent of the workforce unionized—compared to 15 percent 20 years ago—Colombia now has the lowest unionization rate in Latin America. In other words, the anti-union objectives of the dirty war have, for the most part, been achieved.
While the number of killings has decreased significantly under President Uribe, the impunity rates for those responsible have not. The failure of the Uribe administration to more effectively prosecute the perpetrators of the killings perhaps more tellingly illustrates the government's attitude than any reduction in the slaughter of a workforce whose numbers have already been decimated.
According to the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU), there were 1,165 documented murders of Colombian trade union members between 1994 and 2006. However, the state has convicted the perpetrators in only 14 of these cases—an impunity rate of over 98 percent. According to Amnesty International, 236 murders occurred between 2004 and 2006 and the government has achieved convictions in only five of those cases. In other words, there has been virtually no change in the impunity rate under the Uribe administration.
Not only is the Uribe administration's failure to address Colombia's climate of impunity troubling, but so is the fact that there has been a dramatic escalation of the state's direct role in human rights abuses under the current president. According to the ICFTU, paramilitaries were responsible for 89 percent of the human rights abuses perpetrated against Colombian unionists in 2001, while the state and leftist guerrillas accounted for the remaining 11 percent. Four years later, state security forces were directly responsible for 41 percent of the violations—and paramilitaries for a further 50 percent.
In actuality, the Colombian government should be held responsible for human rights abuses perpetrated against unionists by both the state's security forces and the paramilitaries since the two frequently collude in the country's dirty war. Colombia's ongoing para-politics scandal has confirmed links between the government and right-wing paramilitary death squads. In fact, more than 51 Colombian legislators are currently being investigated or have already been imprisoned as a result of the scandal—the overwhelming majority of them are political allies of President Uribe.
Last year, long-standing accusations of collusion between the paramilitaries and multinational corporations—who stand to be the principal beneficiaries of a free trade agreement—were also confirmed. In March, Chiquita Brands International pled guilty in U.S. federal court to funding Colombian paramilitaries on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations to the tune of $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004. Those paramilitaries killed thousands of civilians, including unionists, in the banana-growing region during the years they were on Chiquita's payroll.
The Bush administration points to the paramilitary demobilization process as evidence that President Uribe is addressing the threat posed by the right-wing militias. However, in reality, the demobilization more closely resembles a restructuring than a disbandment of the paramilitaries. In 2006, the Colombian NGO Indepaz reported that 43 new paramilitary groups totaling almost 4,000 fighters had been formed in 23 of the country's 32 departments. Meanwhile, the Organization of American States (OAS) has estimated that there are 20 new paramilitary groups with 3,000 fighters operating in Colombia.
The United States should not "reward" the Colombian government with a free trade agreement while the South American nation remains the most dangerous country in the world for unionists and the state's security forces pose the greatest threat to organized workers. The ratification of a free trade agreement by the U.S. Congress would be akin to awarding a trophy for a job well done to those responsible for both the slaughter of Colombia's workers and the maintenance of a culture of impunity.