On 12 February a brown envelope was left outside the home of Coca-Cola worker José Domingo Flórez. The note inside was from the Black Eagles, a right wing paramilitary death squad.
It read, “Now you will take consequences that will be very inhumane. We will start with your families and move on afterwards to you, trade unionist sons of bitches.”
The recent raid on Ecuador ordered by Colombia’s president Alvaro Uribe has pushed this latest revelation of “para-politics” to the sidelines.
But the challenges facing working class organisations in Colombia still centre on surviving the violence that threatens social activists at every turn.
The para-politics scandal goes right to the heart of government. Some 52 Colombian congressmen, all Uribe supporters, are under investigation for links to death squads.
The paramilitaries are Colombia’s special curse, deployed without mercy for two generations.
Paramilitary leader “Jorge 40” has admitted to ordering over 700 murders. As commander of the northern block of the AUC paramilitary group, he paid off local politicians and eliminated their electoral opponents in return for protection for drugs running.
Jorge Noguera, head of Colombia’s national intelligence service, passed lists of trade unionists and academics to be assassinated to Jorge 40.
Luciano Romero was one of Jorge 40’s victims. Luciano was a militant in food and beverage workers union Sinaltrainal at the Nestlé-owned Valledupar Cicolac plant until he was sacked in 2001.
Under constant persecution, Luciano spent six months in Spain before returning to the struggle in Colombia. On 10 September 2005 he was “disappeared”. His body was discovered the following day with 40 wounds indicating torture.
The AUC has supposedly been disbanded, but a new generation of paramilitaries has taken its place. Sinaltrainal organises Coca-Cola workers and has conducted confidential talks with the corporation, seeking justice for eight assassinated leaders.
But the talks broke down last September and the union relaunched its international campaign “Because I love life, I don’t drink Coca-Cola”. Now the Black Eagles have targeted families of workers at the Bucaramanga plant, threatening to kill their daughters if they don’t give up union activities.
Colombian armed forces have carried out at least 908 extra-judicial executions since Uribe took power in August 2002. In the Cimitarra river valley alone soldiers have killed 15 small farmers, or “campesinos”.
The pattern of executions follows a clear logic. They are aimed at expelling the farmers from their land and destroying any grassroots organisation.
Campesinos in the San Lucas mountains of South Bolivar have been living under military and paramilitary siege for the last decade.
The trigger was the discovery of gold in 1996 by a US-Canadian corporation Conquistador Mines and the British-South African corporation Anglo-Gold Ashanti. There has been a murderous campaign of clearances to force local communities out ever since.
Colombia is rich in minerals. The La Guajira peninsula hosts the Atlantic basin’s biggest open cast coal mine, El Cerrejon. The spectacularly profitable Cerrejon Coal firm is run by three of the world’s five largest mining companies – BHP Billiton, Anglo-American and Xstrata.
With commodity prices booming, the multinationals are penetrating further into Colombia. Their interest brings the same pattern of assaults on the civilian population to “secure” the mining zones.
Indigenous people, campesinos and African communities in the south west provinces of Nariño, Cauca and Tolima all came under attack last year when Anglo-Gold Ashanti registered gold mining rights.
The communities have not taken this lying down. Their social movements have united in a new coalition, the National Inter-Ethnic Agro-Mining Gathering. They declared, “We must not let the multinationals enter and loot our territory.”
Where does all the violence against the poor of the countryside end? It dispossesses them and drives them to the city barrios. There are four million internally displaced people in Colombia – nearly 10 percent of the entire population.
These displaced people, known as “desplazados”, end up in slums like Cuidad Bolivar, part of the belt of misery that stretches across the south of the capital city Bogota.
Here too the paramilitaries have moved in. Uribe has reshaped paramilitarism, turning it into a project for urban social control that feeds off the informal economy. The reformed paramilitaries run Cuidad Bolivar’s local buses and tax its shops and small businesses.
Families without water have to collect it weekly from army controlled standpipes, or hire a tap from the paramilitaries, paying them about 75p an hour. The pressure on young men to join the paramilitary gangs is total – you’re in or you’re dead.
Yet here too there is resistance. Women in Cuidad Bolivar organise, planting city orchards and working with young people to create an alternative.
This kind of dedicated local activity is vital to retaining collective memory, restoring confidence and rebuilding class organisation among Colombia’s people. The other essential ingredient is international solidarity. We have a really worthwhile contribution to make through direct humanitarian aid and by mobilising against the multinationals.
Andy Higginbottom would like to thank other Colombia Solidarity Campaign writers for help in writing this article. For more information go to » www.colombiasolidarity.org.uk
Jorge Molana, human rights lawyer, and agro-mining union leader Teofilo Acuna, will be speaking at a public meeting on Thursday 17 April, 7pm, seminar room, Amnesty International UK, the Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2 (nearest tube Old Street)