Background: Violence Against Trade Unionists in Colombia

More trade unionists are killed in Colombia than in all other countries combined.

From 2005 to 2010, 265 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia; 51 trade unionist were murdered in Colombia in 2010; 29 were murdered in 2011. In the last two decades, more than 2,800 Colombian trade unionists have been assassinated with a near total rate of impunity (over 95%).

Armed right-wing paramilitary groups have been responsible for the majority of the murders, in cases where the assailants are known. Paramilitary groups formed in the mid-1980s in response to growing guerrilla presence in rural zones, and expanded with assistance from large landowners and drug barons, and the army, which supplied them with weapons and training. In the words of Carlos Castaño, former head of the AUC paramilitary umbrella group, “We kill trade unionists because they interfere with people working.” Union leaders may also be targeted because of the key role that unions have played in advocating peace negotiations and condemning both paramilitary and guerrilla violence.

Public sector unions, especially teachers, have been particularly hard hit by the violence.

The government’s attempts to comply with the dictates of IMF-imposed structural adjustment have had their severest impact among public-sector workers. Their unions have responded with increasing militancy, which in turn has drawn more repression from both government institutions and paramilitary forces. In addition to teachers, municipal workers, judicial workers, and health workers continue to be the principal victims.

Most of the violence against trade unionists is a result of the victims' normal union activities.

While the Colombian government claims that most of the violence against trade unions is a byproduct of the armed conflict, the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), a respected NGO that provides training and support to the Colombian labor movement, says that the majority of the anti-union violence that takes place in Colombia is in response to the victims’ normal union activities, and their insistence that unions and citizens participate in peace negotiations.

Some businesses are accused of using the war as a cover for violence against trade unions.

They ask, implicitly or explicitly, paramilitaries to take care of their "union problem." Lawsuits have been filed by the International Labor Rights Forum and the Steelworkers against U.S. companies, Coca Cola, Dole, and Drummond, for allegedly using paramilitaries to kill trade unionists. Students in the U.S. have launched a campaign against Coca-Cola.

Paramilitary groups and some business leaders, consider unions extensions of guerrilla groups. They depict normal union activities as base-building work for the guerrillas.

Guerrilla groups are also responsible for some of the murders of trade unionists. Union leaders are viewed with suspicion by some guerrilla leaders because they represent strong expressions of organized civil society that they do not control.

The number of trade unionists murdered fell from the 2002 high of 192 to 72 in 2005 to 39 in 2007 but increased back to 51 in 2010 before dropping again in 2011 to 29.

During debates about the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, pro-FTA advocates asserted that the decrease in trade-union murders from the 2002 is due to increased efforts to protect union members. A more likely explanation is that in late 2002, the Uribe government offered to negotiate a peace accord with the paramilitaries and the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the largest paramilitary group). The AUC responded by announcing a unilateral ceasefire and paramilitary murders of trade unionists began to drop significantly for several years until holding relatively steady from 2007 on, with Colombia still leading the world in number of trade unionists murdered and while other forms of violence escalated.

Check out our resources on violence against Colombian trade unionists.