<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Labor Activists Say U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement Will Be Signed in Blood if Approved

Exiled Labor Leader: Cocaine Mafia Drives Uribe Government


By Bill Conroy
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

September 30, 2007

SAN ANTONIO: More than 100 people crammed into a tiny lecture room on the St. Mary’s University campus in San Antonio, Texas, Thursday night, Sept. 27, to hear a slate of speakers discussing the perils of the proposed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

A cadre of labor, community, religious, environmental and student groups banded together under the banner of “fair trade” to sponsor the forum.


Natalia Cardona
Photos: D.R. 2007 Bill Conroy
Coincidentally, earlier that day, the vice president of Colombia, Francisco Santos, gave a presentation to a group of San Antonio business leaders that had come together under the banner of “free trade.”

According to an article in the San Antonio Express-News about the free trade event, Santos said: “We would not understand if the [U.S.] government would approve free trade agreements with Peru and Panama but not Colombia. It would be an insult to Colombia, which has been an ally, to be treated that way.”

The Bush Administration is currently undertaking an all-out push to get Congress to approve the FTA with Colombia.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe also was in the U.S. in May of this year as part of a three-day lobbying tour and again in late September as part of a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. During those visits, he promoted the FTA and also tried to rally support for continued funding of Plan Colombia — a multi-billion dollar program initially approved by President Clinton in 2000 to help Colombia fight the so-called war on drugs.

But it is the nexus of narco-trafficking, government corruption and paramilitary death squads (which target labor leaders, leftist guerrillas and indigenous peoples without distinction) in Colombia that has given some in the U.S. Congress pause, for now, in giving into the Bush Administration’s steamroller push for the FTA — and for more greenbacks for Plan Colombia.

One of the speakers at the St. Mary’s University forum, Natalia Cardona of the Quaker-sponsored human rights group the American Friends Service Committee, describes the situation this way:

We cannot talk about Colombia just in the context of our trade interests there. Our military policy [including the billions of dollars pumped into the country through Plan Colombia] has very much a lot to do with what is happening in Colombia…

Cardona’s presentation set the tone for the star speakers of the forum, who zeroed in on a gruesome reality of what they claim U.S. Policy in Colombia is helping to support: The murders of labor leaders at the hands of government-backed paramilitary death squads.


Dan Kovalik
“Colombia is and has been, for many years, the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists,” Dan Kovalik, associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers, told the assembled crowd at the forum.

Kovalik continued:

… The problem is that the [paramilitary] demobilization process is failing. Those paramilitaries are now remobilizing in something called the Black Eagles, another paramilitary group. In fact, just two days ago I received this [letter] from some dear friends of mine who work for a union at Coca Cola in Colombia. They have received a written threat … in which this new paramilitary group has threatened them [the trade union leaders] that if they do not leave the area, the paramilitary “will be forced to fulfill their military objective and on Christmas day bury the union members and their families in a mass grave.”

And so that’s what’s happening in Colombia. … And if we give them the benefits of a free trade agreement, it’s going to continue to happen.

They’re on their best behavior right now. If we give them this free trade agreement, it’s all over. They’re going to go back to sleep and it’s going to be business as usual, and that’s just something none of us can tolerate.

In addition to his role as a labor attorney with the Steelworkers, Kovalik is one of the lead attorneys in litigation brought under the Alien Torts Claims Act against the Coca-Cola Co. [LINK], coal producer Drummond Co. and Occidental Petroleum. Those lawsuits allege that the companies have played a role in bloody human rights abuses in Colombia.

The other labor-rights heavyweight on the panel of speakers was Gerardo Cajamarca, a leader in the Coca-Cola labor union SINALTRAINAL and a former city council member from Facatativa. Because of his work on behalf of Colombian workers and human rights, Cajamarca was forced to flee the country with his family (a wife and two children) three years ago due to threats against his life.

An article in San Antonio’s alternative newspaper, the Current, describes Cajamarca’s plight:

It was in the flower-growing town of Facatetiva in central Colombia that decades of union activity led Cajamarca to popular politics and a seat on the city council. But after six years there, he was finally forced to flee. He recalls when the long string of death threats escalated into violence: when he was arrested and beaten by local police; when paramilitary troops shot up the building where he had convened a campaign meeting; when the police, based only two blocks away, refused to intervene.

“We felt fear. The same fear I’ve always lived with,” he said. “We’ve had to really live with that fear. But that’s what pushes us to keep fighting. There’s no other way to the struggle.”

After he got his wife and children out of town, Cajamarca left Facatetiva, but continued his work investigating human-rights abuses in several nearby towns. That’s when the paramilitary members went to his mother’s house and smashed out the windows. Only then did he realize it really was time to go.

Cajamarca found refuge in the U.S. with the United Steelworkers these past three years ….

During the forum at St. Mary’s University, Cajamarca described his take on the tragic situation in Colombia (translated by an interpreter) as follows:

If we know that this government was elected by and through the mafias, through criminals, do we not have the backing to say that this is a mafia-driven government? Because it is a crime to produce and traffic cocaine, because it is a crime to cut people up using chainsaws and machetes, and that’s what the paramilitaries in Colombia do. The principal source of income is cocaine.

It’s true that the guerrillas also commit human rights violations that we denounce. [However,] statistics show that the paramilitaries and that the official militaries commit many more atrocities. Here we are denouncing the government of Alvaro Uribe Velez because it is part of his politics to use terror against the population. He is the one who wants to sign the free trade agreement with the United States. The [FARC] guerrillas are not going to sign the free trade agreement. Here the contradiction is with the government, a government that has also committed severe acts of corruption.


Gerardo Cajamarca
The struggle for justice in Colombia is now set against this backdrop of free trade with the opposing forces on each side engaged in a pitched battle to advance what they see as progress. That became apparent during Cajamarca’s presentation at St. Mary’s University when a small group of dissenters interrupted his talk, shouting out their support for Uribe’s policies and accusing Cajamarca of being a “liar.”

But in listening to Cajamarca and Kovalik speak (and even the dissenters who spoke out for Uribe) it became clear that the existing policies in Colombia, supported by the U.S. government, have not stemmed the bloodshed and the terror inflicted on the Colombian people. That reality can be spun a lot of ways – by blaming it on the leftist guerrilla group the FARC, as the Uribe backers did at the forum, for example.

Still, the FARC can’t be blamed for the violence perpetrated against union activists under Uribe’s reign, and those figures are not pretty, according to the nonprofit U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP). Between 2002 (when Uribe took office) and 2006, a total of 510 union activists have been slain in Colombia.

“Convictions have been reported in only five cases for the 236 trade unionists murdered in the most recent three-year period, 2004-2006,” states a Colombia Fact Sheet released by USLEAP.

The Uribe Administration likes to trumpet the fact that the number of murders of trade unionists has been on a downward trend since he took office. However, to put that so-called good news in perspective, according to USLEAP, each year between 2002 and 2006 the total number of labor-leader assassinations in Colombia alone has exceeded the total killed globally — with 72 union leaders killed in Colombia in 2006, compared to 66 in the entire rest of the world that same year.

After that much bloodshed, you have to wonder if Uribe’s so-called success in reducing the murder rate of unionists is not due to the fact that there are simply fewer labor leaders out there to murder.

The truth is that the terror and corruption in Colombia that have produced all the death to date is fueled by money. (The allegations of U.S. law enforcement corruption in Colombia revealed in Narco News’ Bogota Connection series drive home that point further.)

The bounty of free trade envisioned by its backers only promises to turn the heat up on that caustic brew — promising to make the stakes (and statistics) in that bloodbath even higher.

That may be a lot of things, even good for “business,” but it certainly can’t be billed as progress for the people of Colombia.

But you can judge that for yourself, based on what Cajamarca and Kovalik said at the St. Mary’s University forum — which was promoted as follows: Murder, Plunder, and Corporate Profit: The Trojan Horse of Free Trade in Colombia.

You can listen to their presentations at these links: Cajamarca (who presents in Spanish with an English interpreter) and Kovalik.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America