This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
“In 1994 they killed my son,” Luis Lara said. “A boy of 12 who didn’t have anything to do with this. In the same year, some of my colleagues were murdered and then my daughter was kidnapped. They threw her inside a car, tortured her, did what they wanted to her and then took her to an empty place. They shot her in the head to make sure she was dead. But there in the darkness, I don’t know what happened. She must have moved because the bullet went through her eye. They thought they’d killed her, but around five in the morning, a man found her. After that she went into exile.”
From what he's describing, you might expect that Luis is a freedom fighter targeted by the security goons of a tyrant, or a small time dealer who got on the wrong side of a drug lord. In fact, he’s a former child laborer, now the leader of Frente Nacional de Lucha, a public services trade union in Guatemala — the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist.
According to the International Trade Union Confederation, 73 trade unionists have been murdered in the Central American nation since 2007. That makes it the most deadly place in the world to be a trade unionist, on a per-capita basis. No one has been convicted of the crimes.
“Labor and trade union rights violations are the rule, not the exception in Guatemala,” said Rosa Pavanelli, general secretary of Public Services International, a global trade union federation representing 20 million workers.
“A wide range of punitive measures are used against trade union members, from threats, relocation, redeployment and dismissal to administrative sanctions and criminal convictions, physical attacks and murder,” she continued. “Although Guatemala is one of the most unequal countries in the world, privatization of public services continues. The repression against those who speak up is guided by the interests of international corporations and the national elite.”
Having recently emerged from a bloody history of military dictatorship and civil war, Guatemala now finds itself caught up in another conflict being fought by the region’s drug cartels. According to human rights organizations, the country has a weak judicial system that fuels a culture of impunity and fear so when unionists campaign for better labor rights, it's easy for those with power and money to shut them up without repercussions.
After Luis’s daughter was kidnapped, the US Embassy offered them both asylum. But while his daughter fled the country, Luis refused to give up the fight he’d dedicated his life to.
“I didn’t want to go into exile, to flee and suffer in another country and be far away from what I really loved,” he said. “I have a deep love for this fight. We are fighting for democracy in Guatemala — that’s our fight. And it’s not an armed fight, it’s a fight to build peace with positive actions.”
In Sweden, the most unionized country in the world, 67.5 percent of the working population is part of a trade union. In the UK, which has some of the most restrictive anti-trade union laws of anywhere that's not a dictatorship, it’s 25.8 percent. As a result of anti-union violence, current union membership in Guatemala lies at just 1.6 per cent of the working population.
Over the past year a number of international delegations have visited the country to meet with the Guatemalan president and urge his government actually do something about the wave of deaths. The Guatemalan government insists that it is doing everything it can to prevent new attacks against unionists. This has so far involved offering to increase protection for union workers who feel their lives are in danger and creating a number of roundtable discussions.
“[The roundtables] have the objective of developing prevention policies to avoid attacks against workers and union leaders… and exchanging information to be able to combat the criminals or the perpetrators of the crimes,” said Guatemalan Labor Minister Carlos Contreras Solórzano.
Unsurprisingly, Luis said that holding roundtable meet ‘n’ greets doesn’t really constitute taking action compared to, say, finding and prosecuting the hit men that have threatened and murdered his colleagues. He can’t remember exactly how many death threats he’s received, but thinks it’s probably somewhere between 10 and 15.
“Almost everyone here has received death threats,” he noted, referring to his colleagues at Frente Nacional de Lucha. “It’s rare not to receive one. The last one I received was more or less a year ago. Someone put my name in an obituary, as if I was dead. They splashed blood on it and left it where I’d find it, like saying, ‘You’re already dead.’ ”
The local press has been less than helpful, too.
“A newspaper also published a supplement saying I was a terrorist,” Luis said. “But terrorism because you demand justice, equality, peace, because you demand democracy? All those elements that around the world are common and respected. Here, they might be written down, but they’re not respected.”
In March 2013, the Guatemalan government signed an agreement with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to investigate and prosecute crimes against trade union members. However, just days after the mission left the country, three more trade unionists were murdered. A permanent ILO representative has since been instated in the country.
“Today the union movement has new challenges,” Luis explained. “Before, you knew who the owner of a business was, but now you have no clue. The owner could be hidden away over there, he could be a drug trafficker or someone involved in organized crime. There are visible enemies and then there are invisible enemies and when you touch their interests they turn on you.”
He said that when a union leader starts to denounce a situation, “it hits invisible people. They’re against us because we step on their interests. It’s not because they’re defending labor rights.”
Luis has never considered another career, and has grown accustomed to the fear that accompanies him in his day job.
“The fear’s always been there,” he said. “It brings you down today and tomorrow you get up again. It never goes away but we’ve made the decision to continue with our fight in the middle of all these fears, of all these threats. I’ll keep fighting, it’s not about resigning and walking away.”
In March the ILO decided to postpone a vote on whether or not to instigate a Commission of Inquiry in Guatemala until November. If they do go ahead with it, the in-depth inquiry will be one of only 11 that have taken place in nearly 100 years of ILO’s existence.
Guatemala is at a crossroads. The current government pledged to start a process to end anti-union violence and implemented several initiatives on social dialogue and consultation with trade unions. But when trade unionists are being murdered and threatened, dialogue alone is not going to put them at ease, or punish the killers.