As we approach Good Friday, it is crucial to properly remember the union leaders martyred in Colombia at rates which continue to be breathtaking. Just this year alone, 12 unionists have been killed in Colombia.
Quite shockingly, four of these union leaders were assassinated in a four-day period between March 4 and March 7. These union leaders, along with two other social leaders murdered around this time, were killed with the open encouragement of the Uribe Administration. How, in God's name, could a government do that, you may ask.
This, is how: in typical fashion, the Uribe administration announced that a peaceful demonstration -- the March 6 world-wide demonstration planned in solidarity with the victims of the Colombian state and paramilitaries linked with the state -- was actually being "convened by the FARC." This was a dangerous statement because the FARC is a guerilla group which the Colombian state has been at war with for decades. So Uribe was contending the peaceful demonstration was being planned by seditionists.
What predictably followed from this provocative, and baseless, announcement by the Uribe Administration was a killing spree by the Black Eagles, a re-formed part of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) -- the right-wing paramilitary group which our own State Department reports has been closely tied with the Colombian government and military. The result: six more victims of the paramilitary/state violence in Colombia.
More troubling, the Black Eagles issued a written death threat against a total of 28 individuals associated with the March 6 demonstration and actually designated a number of sponsoring organizations -- including the Confederation of Union Workers (CUT), the largest Colombian trade union confederation -- as military targets. This raises serious concerns that more murders are yet to come.
Bringing this very close to home for me is that one those named on the death list published by the Black Eagles was a young woman named Diana Gomez. I met Ms. Gomez at the March 6 demonstration in Washington D.C., an event co-sponsored by the United Steelworkers. Ms. Gomez has already lost her father, a union leader, to paramilitary/state violence in Colombia. Now, upon her return to Colombia, she is threatened with the same.
Instead of condemning such killings of unarmed, peaceful unionists and social activists -- killings openly encouraged by one of Bush's only allies in Latin America, Alvaro Uribe -- President Bush announced within days of these killings that he intends to reward the Colombian government by attempting to force passage of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement after Easter. This announcement by the Bush administration sends a clear signal to those who would harm unionists and social leaders in Colombia that the U.S. is indifferent to the violence they perpetrate -- that the U.S. will even reward those who carry out such violence with preferential trade deals.
To truly honor those who have already been martyred in Colombia, and to try to protect those who continue to live under the threat of murder, we must continue to oppose the Colombia FTA -- the passage of which human rights groups and unions in Colombia are certain will only lead to an increase in an already unacceptable level of violence against those who dare to speak out for human and labor rights.
Finally, in the spirit of Archbishop Oscar Romero -- a victim himself of paramilitary/state violence in El Salvador who called upon us to be a "voice of the voiceless" - I wish to list the names of those Colombian unionists who were forever silenced by assassination in 2008:
*Mario Zuluaga (ASMEDAS), killed January 2, 2008 in the town of Medellin
*Ramiro de Jesus Perez Zapata (ADIDA), killed January 12, 2008 in San Jeronimo
*Israel Gonzales (UNITFENSUAGRO), killed January 24, 2008 in San Antonio
*Jose Yebrail Suarez Leal (Sindicato Gremial de la Guardia), killed January 28 in Bello
*Jose Martin Duarte Acero (SINTRAMBIENTE), killed February 2, 2008 in Meta
*Maria del Carmen Mesa Pasochoa (ASEDAR), killed February 8, 2008 in Tame
*Arlet Benavides Samboni (ANTHOC), killed February 9, 2008 in Balboa
*Carmen Cecilia Carvajal Ramirez (ASINORT), killed March 4, 2008 in Ocaña-Norte
*Leonidas Gomez Rozo (CUT), killed March 5, 2008 in Bogota
*Rafael Boada (Union Nacional de Empleados Bancarios), killed March 7 in Bucaramanga
*Gildaro Antonio Gomez Alzate (ADIDA), killed March 7, 2008
*Carlos Burbano (Hospital Workers Union), killed March 11 in San Vincente del Caguan