by Jessye Weinstein WFP Colombia Team
Two trade union leaders in Barrancabermeja’s Coca Cola plant —William Mendoza, President of the local chapter of the Food Industry Workers Union (SINALTRAINAL) and Juan Carlos Galvis, member of SINALTRAINAL’s National Executive Board—are facing false accusations of terrorism. Barrancabermeja is a paramilitary stronghold, and understanding that paramilitaries are largely responsible for the systematic killing of unionists in Colombia, Mendoza and Galvis are sure that a prison sentence in the parapolitical climate of Barrancabermeja would mean imminent death.
The accusation against these two men of having taken part in placing a bomb in a Coca Cola plant in 1998 was brought by three demobilized paramilitary leaders responsible for hundreds of assassinations. These paramilitary leaders took advantage of the 2005 “Justice and Peace” demobilization law to simultaneously exchange their “testimony” against Mendoza and Galvis for varying degrees of amnesty, while continuing their same campaign of terror towards union leaders that they had waged before demobilizing. Although the charge was leveled in 2008, it is only now being activated, coinciding rather perfectly with the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Many see this as hardly a coincidence.
In order for the trade agreement to enter into effect, a Labor Action Plan (LAP) was signed by Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in April 2011 with the intention of improving labor conditions in Colombia before the implementation of a binding economic treaty. Although the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement went into effect on May 15, the LAP never met many of its stated goals, now leaving little leverage for improving labor conditions. In fact, the history of FTAs in other countries even suggests that the passage of FTAs can be met with a dramatic upsurge in violence against unionists as state energy ceases to be placed in efforts that give a pretty face to the labor situation during negotiations. One example can be seen in the significant rise of violence in Guatemala since the implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2006: no trade unionists were murdered in 2006; four were murdered in 2007, then nine in 2008, and 16 in 2009.
Relating this back to the Mendoza and Galvis case, it is interesting to note that although the charge was leveled in 2008, nothing became of the case during all the years of FTA negotiations until the eve of implemetation. William’s analysis is simple: “Now that they’ve finalized the Free Trade Agreement, they want to finish off SINALTRAINAL. The government now wants to use the judicial process against Juan Carlos and me. They want to send us to prison where we will be assassinated, and in that way strike a blow against SINALTRAINAL…They couldn’t kill us, so they are now trying to frame us.”
Mendoza’s words situate his personal experiences within the context of living in the country still internationally recognized as the most lethal nation in the world for trade unionists. We must not allow the false accusations coming from paramilitary leaders, nor the false rhetoric coming from our government ensuring compliance with the Labor Action Plan, to mask the reality of the labor situation in Colombia and threaten the lives of labor leaders.
Contact your Congressional representatives and members of the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia to express your concern about this case.
Members on the House Congressional Monitoring Group:
Howard Berman, 202-225-4695 Rosa DeLauro, 202-225-3661 Keith Ellison, 202-225-4755 Sam Farr, 202-225-2861 Steny Hoyer, 202-225-4131 James McGovern, 202-225-6101 Michel Michaud, 202-225-6306 George Miller, 202-225-2095 Sander Levin, 202-225-4961 Nancy Pelosi, 202-225-4965