United Steelworkers Letter Condemns April 2014 Repression of Colombian Unions

CLICK HERE to send email to the Colombian government and US State Department on behalf of ASTRACAN and SINTRAEMCALI



Juan Manuel Santos Calderón

Presidente de la República

Carrera 8 No. 7 -26

Palacio de Nariño

Bogotá, Colombia

Dear President Santos:

We are writing on behalf of the 850,000 members of the USW in North America to express our grave concern regarding recent events affecting our trade union brothers and sisters in Colombia.

First, we were shocked to learn that on April 16, 2014, incendiary bombs were thrown at the headquarters of SINTRAEMCALI, the public sector union in Cali, Colombia. The attack comes just days after a major court decision on April 11, which ordered both you, Mr. President, and Vice President Angelino Garzón to ask forgiveness for crimes committed against SINTRAEMCALI, SINTRAUNICOL, and SINTRATELEFONOS unions during the government of former president Alvaro Uribe.

This latest attack also comes just one week after the third anniversary of the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP), which both countries applauded for purportedly securing “major advances” in labor rights. The bilateral agreement was designed to address Colombia’s high levels of anti-union violence and labor rights violations in advance of a free trade agreement, though according to new research, the LAP has largely failed to improve the situation of organized labor in Colombia. In 2013, 26 union members were murdered for their work in Colombia, and illegal subcontracting and mass firings continue to be widely used to violate the right to free association.

SINTRAEMCALI has been especially targeted by paramilitary groups for its organizing in the wake of a mass firing of Cali public sector workers in 2004. In the decade since, at least 15 members of SINTRAEMCALI have been forced into exile, eight have been killed, and over 100 more threatened. The union was also the target of “Operation Dragon,” a government-backed assassination plot against then-SINTRAEMCALI President — and current senator — Alexander Lopez Maya and other human rights defenders in the region. The trial against several members of the Colombian armed forces is currently ongoing.

We are also very concerned about the mass arrest of 17 peasant farmers on March 17, 2014 by police forces in the Municipality of Leiva (Nariño). All of these peasant farmers are members of the Association of Peasant Workers of Nariño-ASTRAKHAN, an affiliate of FENSUAGRO. We note in this regard that the USW and FENSUAGRO are signatories to an agreement in which we treat any injury to members of the other union as an injury to a member of our own.

It is clear that this mass arrest of the peasant farmers is part and parcel of the mounting retaliation for the participation of farmers in the National Agrarian and Popular Strike conducted in August of 2013.

The USW asks that the Colombian government, and specifically the National Protection Unit (Unidad de Protección Nacional, UNP) investigate the foregoing events and ensure sufficient protection is given to the labor leaders in accordance with its commitments under the Labor Action Plan. Yet protection measures alone are insufficient in ensuring lasting protection and addressing the underlying causes of anti-union violence. The Attorney General must investigate these crimes, and ensure both the material and intellectual authors are brought to justice. As U.S. Congressmen McGovern and Miller highlighted in a recent letter, threats and attacks should be taken more seriously and immediately investigated to ensure they do not translate into murders.

Finally, political statements make a tangible difference in protecting lives. President Santos, you should abide by the April 11 court order and apologize on behalf of the Colombian government for the crimes committed under President Uribe, as well as condemn these latest attacks.

Yours sincerely,


Leo W. Gerard

International President

c: Honorable John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State

U.S. Congressional Colombia Monitoring Group

Ambassador Michael Froman, U.S. Trade Representative