Guatemala Is the Deadliest Place in the World to Be a Trade Unionist

Seventy-three trade unionists have been murdered in the Central American nation since 2007.

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May 15 2014, 11:30am

A trade-union protest outside the presidential palace in Guatemala City

“In 1994 they killed my son. 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,” says Luis Lara.

Form what he's saying, you might expect Luis Lara 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 to be a trade unionist.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 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,” says 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. 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.”

The funeral of Carlos Hernández, a trade unionist who was shot last year

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 his daughter was kidnapped, both she and Luis were offered asylum by the US Embassy. But while she fled, he 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. 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,” says Luis.

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. But so far that has 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,” says Guatemalan Labor Minister Carlos Contreras Solórzano.

Unsurprisingly, Luis says that holding round tables and meet-and-greets doesn't really constitute taking action when compared with, say, finding and prosecuting the hit men who 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 ten and 15.

“Almost everyone here has received death threats,” he says, pointing 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. 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.”

Frente Nacional de Lucha members demonstrating

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. 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.

“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,” states Luis. He says he’s never considered another career and has become accustomed to the fear that accompanies him in his day job. “The fear’s always been there. 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, talk alone is not going to put them at ease, or punish the killers.

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