by Maria Isabel Garcia
(IPS) BOGOTA --
of trade unionists have been killed this year in Colombia by right-wing paramilitary groups, which have seized control of labor organizations and banned schools from teaching subjects like philosophy, said the country's biggest central trade union.
The head of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Miguel Antonio Caro, told IPS that the most recent wave of assassinations of labor activists had coincided with the taking over of a number of unions in the country's hinterland by the paramilitary AUC.
"The situation has been getting worse, and we are frankly overwhelmed," said Caro. He pointed out that "counting just members of CUT, 31 trade unionists, including 13 teachers, were killed in the first three months of the year," while 112 -- including 42 teachers -- were killed last year.
The Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE), the largest union affiliated with CUT, complains that death threats have led to a shortage of teachers in some 300 schools, while some 18,000 children are unable to attend school due to Colombia's decades-old armed conflict.
"We are also extremely concerned about other means of taking over the unions, such as sending letters to members warning them to turn the administration of the organization over to" the paramilitary groups, said the president of CUT.
Especially affected by such techniques are the banana workers in Urabá in Colombia's northern region on the Caribbean coast, although similar things have also occurred in other parts of the country, said Caro, who added that it was not easy to estimate how many unions had been taken over.
Analysts say the preponderance of paramilitary groups in the banana-growing region is rooted in the turf wars fought with guerrilla organizations in the late 1980s.
Caro described the pressure suffered by the trade unions, and especially the 280,000-member FECODE, which is CUT's main support base.
"We have cases in which [the paramilitaries] go so far as to dictate what teachers can and can't teach, prohibiting them, for example, from discussing Plato and Descartes in the classroom -- which demonstrates the cultural level of these people," he said.
The majority of complaints point to the paramilitaries, although leftist insurgent groups also exercise control over the schools located in their areas of influence.
One schoolteacher recently told the Bogota daily El Tiempo that AUC issued an order last September in Pelaya, in the department of César on the Caribbean coast, banning philosophy and social sciences from being taught in all schools in the municipality.
FECODE statistics indicate that 185 teachers have been killed since 1995.
"The situation is terrible, and we do not see the government [of Andrés Pastrana] moving from words to effective actions aimed at putting an end to this situation one day," said Caro.
its annual report on "Global Patterns of Terrorism" released this week, the U.S. State Department added AUC to its list of terrorist organizations for the first time.
According to the report, the countries with the greatest number of killings were Colombia and India. In Colombia, it stated, paramilitary groups committed 804 murders and 75 massacres with 507 victims in the first 10 months of 2000.
Caro pointed out that in June, the International Labor Organization (ILO) would discuss the creation of a special commission on the situation in Colombia due to the continued reports of violations of human rights and labor freedoms.
The trade unionist told IPS that Colombia had been facing complaints of such abuses "for the past 10 years," and that the ILO had already issued reports condemning the situation here. "But to judge by the current state of things, that criticism has had no effect here," he added.
Colombia is a country of 40 million with an economically active population of 14 million, 20 percent of whom are unemployed. Around 3.5 million work in the informal sector, according to estimates by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the regional United Nations agency.
Three central trade unions -- CUT, the Confederación General de Trabajadores Democráticos and the Confederación de Trabajadores de Colombia -- together represent over one million workers.
"It is frankly an alarming situation that is only getting worse -- which means all of the measures the ILO has adopted against Colombia have not moved the leaders of our country, who believe that they can limit their action to protective measures for a few threatened trade unionists," said Caro.
Today, "there is a very large group of labor activists who have been threatened, others who have survived attacks, many who have disappeared, and many other who have had to leave the country or flee into internal exile," he added.
Special ILO delegate Rafael Alburquerque, a former labor minister from the Dominican Republic, was given the mandate of monitoring the situation of trade unionists in Colombia in early 2000.
Alburquerque presented a report this month underlining the violent actions by paramilitary groups against trade unions. The study states that paramilitary organizations are to blame for most of the murders of labor activists in Colombia, although it points out that the perpetrators have not been identified in 65 percent of the cases.
The ILO delegate said the number of active AUC members had risen from 4,000 to 8,000 over the past decade.
Alburquerque recognized "the Colombian government's will to implement protective measures for trade unionists," but noted that "the results have left much to be desired," especially with respect to legal investigations and security measures in the offices of trade unions.
The ILO delegate's report complained about the lack of "political actions that would demonstrate, in practice, the adoption of effective mechanisms to combat paramilitary groups."
Caro, meanwhile, said CUT did not deny "the importance of some security measures" implemented by the Pastrana administration. But he stressed the need to adopt "a state policy for protection of trade unionists and human rights defenders.
"The gravity of the situation we are facing makes us completely sure that the ILO will not let the Colombian government off the hook" when the international agency meets in June to discuss the situation here, said the trade union leader.
Anything but a condemnation by the ILO "would be totally absurd, because no one is unaware that there are extremely grave violations of human rights and labor freedoms here," he added.
Colombian Labor Minister Angelino Garzón, meanwhile, a past president of CUT, recently stated that "the moment has arrived in which society as a whole must react to this wholesale massacre of trade unionists."
May 14, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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