“The level of aggression suffered by the trade union movement in Colombia is alarming” | International

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A nurse participates in a health workers union protest in Bogotá in May.IVAN VALENCIA

Colombia is a dangerous country to defend rights. It is the deadliest for environmentalists, for social leaders and also for trade unionists, who in 2021 returned to red figures. From January to November 2021, at least 100 were victims of an attack, 14 were murdered and many others reported attacks or arbitrary arrests. “The government has not acted to stop these crimes, in the last year workers who were threatened and did not receive protection have had to go into exile,” says Marcio Monzane, regional secretary of the UNI Global Union federation, which brings together 20 million workers in 150 countries, and who will be part of the electoral observation mission in the legislative elections on March 13.

The violence suffered by union leaders in Colombia is not new, but the level of aggression that the movement is experiencing “is alarming”, says Monzane. One of the latest victims was Robinson Jiménez, president of the Santander Drillers Association and contractor employee of the state-owned Ecopetrol. Jiménez was shot as he was leaving a work shift last October and died after a month under medical observation. The attack that cost him his life occurred after a day of protest, in which trade unionists and workers demonstrated against Ecopetrol for its attempts at "disguised privatization and job insecurity," according to the Workers' Union (USO).

"The violence [contra líderes sociales y sindicales], in contrast to what happened in the same period of the 2017 pre-election calendar, is worrying. This time there are at least 400 attacks and 81 murders,” says Monzane, citing figures from the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE). “In the first ten months of the pre-election calendar there was a 3.8% increase in murders compared to 2017. In the case of attacks it was 55%, which shows that the lethality of the attacks against the different leaderships of the country has intensified”, the MOE pointed out in a report last January.

Anti-union violence against women has been another complaint by the workers' unions. In 2021, two teachers affiliated with teachers' unions were murdered and union leaders such as Martha Alfonso and María Eugenia Londoño, both from the Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE), have reported threats and harassment. According to the National Trade Union School, Sinderh, from 1971 to 2021, there were 3,295 homicides, 434 attacks, 253 forced disappearances, 7,624 death threats and 1,952 forced displacements. “Colombia, ahead of Brazil or Guatemala, is the worst country to be a trade unionist. There is a great concern about security and the risks, which increase in the elections”, says Monzane. A commission of trade unionists from several countries, convened by UNI Global, has requested to be part of the observation mission in Colombia and verify the development of the elections next March, on a day about which they have already warned of risks. The MOE confirmed that ten candidates for Congress have been victims of violence and four presidential candidates have suffered some type of aggression. "Given the increase in violence, it is worrying what may arise in the following months, if effective measures are not adopted for its attention," said the organization, which points to the paramilitary band Águilas Negras as the main threat during electoral times. The candidates who have been victims of violence were declared by that group as a military objective for "trying to promote a leftist policy."

“If the government treats and recognizes human rights defenders and leaders as the social actors they are, the violence decreases, but we see that they are singled out and from the business sectors trade unionists are treated as terrorists or guerrillas. Saying that in the Colombian context is quite dangerous,” says Monzane.

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