On 12 February a brown envelope was left outside the home of Coca-Cola worker José Domingo Flórez, the note inside was from the paramilitary Black Eagles and it said “now you will take the consequences that are going to be very inhumane we will start with your families and afterwards with you trade unionist sons of bitches …”.
Uribe’s raid on Ecuador has pushed the latest revelations in the ‘para-política’ scandal to the sidelines, but the challenges for working class organisation still centre on surviving the violence that threatens social activists at every turn.
The para-politics scandal goes right to the heart of government. Fifty two Congressmen, all Uribe supporters, are under investigation for links with paramilitary death squads. Twenty one politicians are in prison, and enquiries continue.
The paramilitaries are Colombia’s special curse, deployed by the ruling class without mercy for two generations. On 3 March paramilitary leader ‘Jorge 40’, revealed an especially macabre killing method. The assassination of more than three people in one incident is under international humanitarian law recorded as a massacre, and so to reduce their massacre count the paramilitaries used poisonous snakes to dispatch their victims.
Jorge 40 admits to ordering the killing of over 700 people. As commander of the Northern Block of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) he paid off local politicians and eliminated their electoral opponents, in return for protection for drugs running. In another indication that para-politica links go right to the top, Jorge Noguera, Uribe’s head of the national intelligence service DAS, passed Jorge 40 lists of trade unionists and academics to be assassinated.
Luciano Romero was one of Jorge 40’s victims. Luciano was a militant in food and beverage workers union Sinaltrainal at the Valledupar CICOLAC plant owned by Nestlé, until he was sacked in 2001. Under constant persecution, Luciano spent six months respite in Spain before returning to the struggle. On 10 September 2005 he was ‘disappeared’ by the AUC. His body was discovered the following day, with 40 wounds indicating torture.
The AUC has supposedly been disbanded, but a new generation of paramilitaries has taken its place. Sinaltrainal organises Coca-Cola workers and has conducted confidential talks with the corporation, seeking justice for eight assassinated leaders. But the talks broke down last September, and the union relaunched its international campaign ‘Because I love life …I don’t drink Coca-Cola’. Once again the unions’ militants are in grave danger. The Black Eagles have especially targeted families of workers at the Bucaramanga plant, threatening to kill their teenage daughters if they don’t give up union activities. Union president Javier Correa and Bucaramanga branch leader Luís García are at the top of the list.
From when Uribe came to power in 2002 to the end of 2007 the armed forces have carried out 908 extra-judicial executions. In the Cimitarra river valley alone soldiers have killed 15 campesino small farmers. The army presents the victims as “guerrillas fallen in combat”, but these claims are ‘false positives’. In reality the pattern extra-judicial summary executions follows a clear logic, to expel the farmers off their land and destroy any grass roots organisation. Six ACVC Peasant Association leaders are in prison and another six face charges of ‘rebellion’.
Campesinos in the San Lucas mountains of South Bolivar have been living under military and paramilitary siege for the last decade. The trigger was the discovery of gold in 1996 by a US/Canadian corporation Conquistador Mines and the UK/South African corporation Anglo-Gold Ashanti. There has been a murderous campaign of clearances to force local communities out ever since. Colombia is rich in minerals, the La Guajira peninsula hosts the Atlantic basin’s biggest open cast coal mine, El Cerrejon. Privatised, spectacularly profitable Cerrejon Coal is run by three of the world’s five largest mining companies: BHP Billiton, Anglo-American and Xstrata. These three are cited in the top 20 UK corporations – British capital benefits hugely from Colombia.
With commodity prices booming, the multinationals are penetrating further and their interest brings the same pattern of assaults on the civilian population to ‘secure’ the zones. Indigenous, and African communities in the south west provinces of Nariño, Cauca and Tolima all came under attack last year once Anglo-Gold Ashanti registered gold mining rights. Tolima especially has suffered a wave of massacres and detentions, a combined army and police assault code-named ‘Operation Pijao’. campesino
The communities have not taken this lying down, their social movements have united in a new coalition, the National Inter-Ethnic Agro-Mining Gathering, declaring “We must not let the multinationals enter and loot our territory. Nor must we let the Government criminalize us for defending these natural resources that can be the solution to many of our problems”.
Where does all the violence against the poor of the countryside end? It dispossesses them, drives them to the city barrios. There are 4 million internally displaced people, nearly 10 per cent of the entire population. The desplazados end up in slums like Cuidad Bolivar, part of the belt of misery that stretches across the south of the capital Bogotá.
Except, the violence does not end. Here too the paramilitaries have moved in. Uribe has reshaped paramilitarism, turning it into a project for urban social control, feeding off the informal economy. The re-formed paramilitaries run Cuidad Bolivar’s local buses, tax its shops and small businesses. Families without domestic water have to collect it weekly from army controlled stand pipes, or hire a tap from the paramilitaries, paying them 3,000 pesos (about 75p) an hour. The paras impose a curfew from 8pm. The pressure on young men to join the para gangs is total, you’re in or you’re dead.
Yet here too there is resistance. Women in Cuidad Bolivar organise, planting city orchards and working with the youth to create an alternative. The combined official and unofficial repression is targeted at the activists and organic intellectuals of the movement, leaving fragmentation as well as fear in its wake. This dedicated local activity is vital to retaining collective memory, restoring confidence and rebuilding class organization.
The other essential ingredient is international solidarity. Through our accompaniment, direct humanitarian aid and mobilisation against the multinationals we have a really worthwhile contribution to make.
(with thanks for assistance from other Colombia Solidarity Campaign writers)