Colombian Peasant Union Under Attack; White House Moves Forward on Colombian FTA

It is with deep concern that the Alliance for Global Justice reports the recent and arbitrary detention in Colombia of Jailer Gonzalez, President of the Association of Peasant Workers of Tolima (ASTRACATOL). ASTRACATOL is an affiliate of FENSUAGRO, the nation’s largest organization of peasant unions and associations. Gonzalez was detained by soldiers of the Colombian Armed Forces 8th Mobile Brigade less than one month after the murders of two ASTRACATOL members, Hector Orozco and Gildardo García on March 30th, and the April 4th disappearance of Cupertino Malambo, an indigenous ASTRACATOL member. Orozco was also Vice President of both his local and of the Community Action Council. All these incidents have occurred in municipalities of the Southern region of the Department of Tolima.

As the White House presses Congress for passage of a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, it has announced a Labor Action Plan that promises better conditions for unionists. But according to United Steel Workers President Leo Gerard, “These most recent killings put into grave doubt whether the Colombian government and its military are truly prepared to reform as the Administration presumes. The fact is, despite the newly negotiated ‘Action Plan,’ the situation in Colombia has not changed, and therefore, should not be rewarded with a Free Trade Agreement.”

The Alliance for Global Justice and its Campaign for Labor Rights have circulated a number of alerts over the last three years regarding threats and attacks against farming communities in Southern Tolima. Most of these involved or implicated the Colombian military–including forces funded, trained and advised by the US. What we are seeing now appears to be an escalation in these abuses.

Here is an overview of the past month’s events:

  • On Wednesday, March 30th, around 6pm, Hector Orozco and Gildardo Garcia were shot down riding motorcycles back to their homes. Having already received threats from soldiers stationed in the area, they were killed just 400 meters from a permanent military post outside Chaparral in the village of Espiritu Santo. Family members were not allowed to retrieve their bodies until 9am the next morning. A few days earlier, Orozco had made a public denunciation against harassment he attributed to certain military officers.
  • On April 4th, the farmers and indigenous persons of the village of Peñas Blancas in the municipality of Rioblanco were assaulted by soldiers from the Sixth Brigade. An ASTRACATOL report says that, “Being approximately four in the afternoon, there occurred a bombardment, constant machine-gun fire and the disembarkation of troops of the National Army in the Indigenous area of Barbacoas, located in Peñas Blancas….” Cupertino Malambo has been missing ever since the assault and friends and family fear for his life. He had been looking for a lost cow when the attack began. Malambo is an ASTRACATOL member and part of the indigenous community.
  • On April 11th and 12th, one thousand persons from the municipalities of Chaparral, Planadas, Rio Blanco and San Antonio gathered in Chaparral to demand the establishment of a Regional Office of Oversight for the Protection of Human Rights.
  • Four days later, on April 16th, ASTRACATOL Pres. Gonzalez was detained at 10:30am in the village of Los Mangos and forced to walk for six hours under armed escort to the military base of Planadas. No warrant or order or explanation was given for his detention. He was held incommunicado until a delegation of community supporters arrived in Planadas demanding to know his whereabouts. Their diligence lead to Gonzalez’ release at 9pm that night.

AFGJ calls for and intensification of efforts to defeat this ill-advised FTA. Colombia remains a nation that sees more union members killed each year than anywhere else in the world. There were 51 unionists killed last year, up over 47 in 2009. In 2010, the rate of impunity for such murders rose from 95% to over 98%. Members of farmers unions and associations are among those most affected by anti-labor violence. Well over 1,500 FENSUAGRO members have been murdered during its 35 years of existence. Comparing that number to the almost 3,000 unionists murdered in the last 25 years in Colombia, one can get a sense of exactly how targeted peasant organizations actually are.

The USW’s Gerard wrote about the plight of Colombia’s rural peoples in an article published on April 12th (even as one thousand farmers and indigenous were gathered in Chaparral, Tolima demanding respect for their human rights). Gerard noted that,

“The FTA would speed forced displacement of Afro-Colombians and indigenous people by encouraging increased exploitation of their land by business interests, such as palm oil companies, half of which are owned by paramilitary groups…..Making matters worse for Colombian farmers, the main U.S. beneficiaries of the FTA would be big agricultural companies which would be permitted to dump cheap, subsidized food stuffs into Colombia duty-free….It’s likely that Colombia would follow the path of Mexico, where, as the ability to grow legitimate crops became economically impossible, farmers turned more and more to producing illicit drugs. Colombia already produces as much as 80 percent of the world’s cocaine.”

Not only is the White House seeking passage of the Colombia FTA, it has announced its intention to seek quick approval for an FTA with Panama and it continues efforts to pass the pending FTA with South Korea. All would ultimately cause job loss at home and destroy small family farms in all involved countries.

We call on our supporters and people of conscience to contact their Congresspeople and demand that they oppose the FTA with Colombia, as well as those proposed for Panama and South Korea. We have defeated efforts to pass these bad agreements in the past, and we must do so again. The people of Colombia deserve better than neoliberal trade agreements, empty promises and ongoing violations of rights. They deserve peace and economic justice.

Congress is taking a Spring Recess from April 18 – 29. AFGJ urges people to call or visit local Congress offices and attend public meetings to call on elected officials to oppose the FTA with Colombia as well as the other pending FTAs.

ACTION NUMBER ONE:
Contact the Colombian Embassy and demand an end to military violence against members of the ASTRACATOL Association of Peasant Workers in Tolima. Call the embassy at (202)-387-8338 or send an email to embassyofcolombia@colombiaemb.org

SAMPLE SCRIPT:
I am contacting you to express concern over recent attacks and abuses committed against members of ASTRACATOL, the Association of Peasant Workers in Tolima. These include the murders of Hector Orozco and Gildardo Garcia, the disappearance of Cupertino Malambo, and the arbitrary detention of ASTRACATOL’s President Jailer Gonzalez. I demand that the safety of ASTRACATOL members be guaranteed. I also support the call being made for a Regional Office in Southern Tolima for Oversight for the Protection of Human Rights.

ACTION NUMBER TWO:
Members of Congress are on recess until April 29th. Please call or visit your Representatives local office and let them know about your opposition to the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and pending FTAs with Panama and South Korea.

Click here to find your Representative’s local and DC office contact information.

Click here to send an email to your Representative.


SAMPLE SCRIPT:

I would like to express my opposition to the pending free trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and especially Colombia. Over the last 25 years 2,857 labor leaders have been killed in Colombia. According to the National Union School in 2010, 51 trade unionists were killed and 7 have gone missing. Since the announcement by Pres. Obama and Colombian Pres. Santos of a Labor Action Plan to improve labor rights in Colombia, there have already been a series of attacks against the Association of Peasant Workers in Tolima, including the murders of Hector Orozco and Gildardo Garcia, the disappearance of Cupertino Malambo, and the arbitrary detention of the union’s President Jailer Gonzalez.

I urge you to respect labor rights abroad and also not risk greater unemployment for us at home. My vote in the next election could be determined by your position on this issue.