This story is over 5 years old.


Colombian Union Leaders Are Being Hunted by Paramilitary Groups

Anti-union violence has been endemic to Colombia, with roughly 3,000 organizers killed by assassins and paramilitaries in the last quarter.
Photo via Handout

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Three months after being shot point-blank in the face with a tear-gas canister by riot police, union leader Oscar Orozco has successfully undergone reconstructive surgery. But he still has no feeling in his forehead, and his left eye is gone.

“Because I am well known,” Orozco told me over the phone, “I am completely convinced that this action specifically targeted me. Their goal was to do me harm, and it was a goal they were able to achieve.”


It wasn’t the first time that Orozco, a chapter president of both the CUT—Colombia’s largest labor federation—and the electrical workers’ union Sintraelecol, has suffered an attempt on his life.

Coming home one evening last November, Orozco’s driver-side window was hit by multiple bullets, the glass lacerating his hand and neck; in the summer of 2012, the armored SUV he and union secretaries were driving in was riddled with bullets in broad daylight.

Before that came years of threats and harassment: fake obituaries in his name; pipe bombs with instructions to stop union activity, or else; and suspicious packages in the parking lot of his apartment building.

‘Colombia’s Deadliest City’ is fighting back against gang extortion. Read more here

These days, when Orozco travels he’s accompanied by a colleague. “We have to make sure that our union-related work doesn’t allow our enemies the opportunity to harm us,” Orozco said. “It could happen at any moment.”

Anti-union violence has been endemic to Colombia for decades, with roughly 3,000 organizers killed by assassins and paramilitaries over the last quarter century.

In fact, more than half of all murders for union-organizing activity worldwide take place here. But as murder numbers have dropped in recent years, the nature of the violence is changing, and there’s evidence to suggest that the Colombian state is complicit in the repression.

On Dec. 4, 2013, Campo Elías Ortiz, José Dilio Naranjo, and Héctor Sánchez — political activists, members of the oil-sector union Unión Sindical Obrera, and key witnesses in a criminal suit against Colombia’s largest private oil company, Pacific Rubiales Energy — were arrested.


The charges against the men stemmed from a massive strike they helped organize against their former employer, Pacifico Rubiales, in the summer of 2011 in Meta, an oil-rich department in the center of the country. Ortiz, Naranjo, and Sánchez stood accused of a number of charges, including conspiracy to commit a crime, blocking roads, and—most incredible of all—aggravated kidnapping and hostage-holding of hundreds of their fellow union members. If convicted, they could face up to 45 years in jail.

“We weren’t ordering people around or kidnapping them,” Sánchez told me when I met him last month, six days after he’d been released from jail. “It is illogical to say that the three of us kidnapped all these people when there were 1,300 members of the army standing nearby, maybe 200 police, and maybe 200 or 300 members of Pacific Rubiales’ private security force. How could we kidnap all these people?”

Colombian trade unionists keep getting assassinated. Read more here

A leather motorcycle jacket pulled over his stocky frame, Sánchez spoke with a measure of disbelief at what’s happened to him and his colleagues over the past four months, particularly when recounting the day of his arrest.

“They didn’t want to arrest me at my home, as I live on land right next to Pacific Rubiales. So they made an appointment with me far from home. I was leaving the designated meeting place because no one had shown up when, all of a sudden, two dozen military agents along with 50 police officers appeared. They mounted an operation to capture me as if I were one of the most dangerous men to ever set foot in the country.


And there were three trucks there: one from the military, one from the police, and one from Pacific Rubailes, loaned to aid in my arrest. From there they took me to the airport, handcuffed, where a chartered plane was waiting for me—Héctor Sánchez.”

Before we parted ways, Sánchez pulled out a flyer he says was circulated around his hometown by Pacific Rubiales’ separate, business-orchestrated union to defame him. Using innocuous photos pulled from Facebook, the flyer accuses Sánchez and his union of being “poor idiots,” “bandits,” and “sons of bitches” addicted to whores and drugs. “Look at all these guys who are on this flyer,” Sánchez said, pointing at the photos. “They are all my friends, people I work with. Here is Camilo; here is José.”

A flyer distributed around Sánchez's hometown defaming him and his union as idiots and drug addicts.

Of course, if you’re a business person, Colombia is a great place to be. The World Bank ranks the country third in Latin America and the Caribbean—after Puerto Rico and Peru—on its “Ease of Doing Business” survey. The country’s Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Trade reported a record $16.7 billion in foreign direct investment for 2012. “Improved security in recent years has turned Colombia into a hot spot for foreign investment after a decade-long US-backed offensive battered Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups, reducing their numbers and making it safer to do business in the Andean country,” reads a Reuters article from last summer.


On paper, life for union organizers has also improved. In 2011, Bogotá and Washington signed the US-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP), meant to improve the rights and conditions of workers and labor activists in Colombia. Union-related murder statistics are down too — the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), a Colombian think tank that tracks this sort of thing, reported that 26 trade unionists were murdered in 2013, compared with more than 250 in 2001 and 2002.

“If you look over a ten year period, the murder rate has dropped,” says Daniel Hawkins, director of research at ENS. “But if you take the bigger picture—attempts at one’s life, arbitrary detention, and threats—Colombia’s rate in participation worldwide has not dropped notably.”

What has changed, he says, is the tactic. Instead of going after low-level unionists en masse, companies are selectively striking at leaders. Since the signing of the LAP three years ago, 73 unionists have been killed, 31 more have seen attempts on their life, six have been forcibly disappeared, and 953 death threats have been issued. The LAP, says Hawkins, “has been a complete failure.”

Hawkins isn’t the only one who thinks so: In October 2013, US congressmen George Miller and Jim McGovern released a report titled “The US-Colombia Labor Action Plan: Failing on the Ground,” which characterizes the much-heralded accord as a toothless agreement with pitifully little impact. “Despite the LAP,” the report reads, “murders and threats against union members and harmful subcontracting persist in Colombia largely unabated… More than 90 percent of cases of violence against trade unionists do not result in conviction.”


Rhett Doumitt, the director of the AFL-CIO-sponsored Solidarity Center in Bogotá told me that it isn’t the laws that are the problem—it’s their application, or lack thereof. “The government passes laws that, if they were enforced, would change things,” Doumitt told me. “But they find a number of ways not to enforce them. What is done in order to create statistics is piecemeal, it’s sporadic, it’s chaotic—and worse, it’s not systemic…What you need is a strong democracy with strong institutions that can uphold the laws in front of national and international capital.”

Until that day comes, union leaders have to seek refuge. In late 2013, Neil Martin and Nathan Miller launched PASO Internacional, a Bogotá-based NGO that offers accompaniment to union organizers and works with both Sánchez and Orozco. The idea is simple: When you’re with an international observer, you’re less likely to be killed.

Colombia blames FARC for deadly attack amid negotiations. Read more here

The Colombian government has its own program to protect people like Orozco—the National Protection Unit (NPU), which offers armed guards and bullet-proof cars—but Martin insists that the NPU is inadequate in terms of how many individuals it can protect. “Furthermore,” says Martin, “the way that they decide who is at risk seems to be fairly arbitrary. The majority of these government protective measures don’t go to grass-roots organizers—they are often assigned to politicians and other government representatives.”


Orozco's government-issued armored car, riddled with bullets in the summer of 2012

Case in point: Six months after the first attempt on Oscar Orozco’s life, his government-provided protection was lifted. That’s when the latest round of shootings, death threats, and deliveries of mysterious packages started. The union leader is currently applying to have his protection reinstated, but whether or not he’ll be approved is unclear.

“It has been extremely difficult,” says Orozco of living life as a hunted man. “It has come to the point of breaking family ties. Family members ask me to decide between family life and the union, and the union is my priority on principle. I have dedicated my life to the union and the principles for which we struggle.

“Several organizations have offered to help me leave the region or the country [as a political refugee], but to leave is another form of dying. It is psychological assassination—it is to be removed from your environment, from your setting, your life, your passion, your love.”

Follow Michael Zelenko on Twitter.