Thursday, May 18, 2006

Terrorism and Trade in Colombia

Daniel Cortez Cortez worked for the state electric company in a small city in the Department of Santander in north-central Colombia for 16 years. He remained active in his union even after right wing death squads linked to cocaine traffickers and the Colombian military took control of the region. His loyalty to the union cost him his life. On Sunday, April 2, a gunman shot Cortez in the face, killing him instantly. He left behind a wife and four children. Nearly 800 union activists have been murdered in Colombia since 2002. Few of the murders have been investigated, and only a handful have been prosecuted – even though in most cases the victims received repeated public threats from local death squad leaders in the weeks and months leading up to their murders. Lately the Colombian government has taken to arresting activists who report death threats, accusing them of fraud.

Now the Colombian press is reporting that between 2002 and 2005 the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), the intelligence agency that should have been helping to investigate the murders and break up the death squads, was instead supplying death squad leaders with lists of union leaders, leftists, and academics targeted for assassination. The charges come from a top DAS official, Rafael Garcia, now serving jail time for accepting bribes to change the files of drug traffickers, and have been corroborated by other sources. Our own government’s hands are far from clean in this matter. Documents uncovered by Texas-based investigative journalist Bill Conroy point to DEA and CIA collaboration with some of the same death squads and narco-traffickers. And U.S. embassy officials held secret meetings with death squad leaders in 2003 and appeared in public with death squad leader Salvatore Mancuso in 2004 despite the fact that the death squads have been listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department and Mancuso is wanted in the U.S. on cocaine trafficking charges.

Why does the U.S. condone the Colombian government’s collaboration with drug trafficking terrorists? In southern Colombia, the death squads have helped the military drive indigenous communities out of oil rich areas where Texas-based oil companies are now reaping huge profits. Colombian oil will become an even more attractive commodity as oil prices rise making the refining of heavier crude more cost effective. Throughout the rest of the country, death squads have been targeting union leaders who have been resist the privatization of Colombia’s schools, hospitals, utilities, and oil refineries – all services U.S. companies would love to buy out and administer.

The pressure to suppress that resistance has grown in recent weeks, after Colombia and the U.S. tentatively signed a bilateral trade agreement. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative the agreement:

“requires that Colombia ensure that any private or public monopolies that they designate, and any state enterprises, are subject to disciplines designed to eliminate abuses of their special status that discriminate against or harm the interests of U.S. companies”

In other words, Colombia will be required either to privatize its state companies and public services or provide support for U.S. companies that want to compete with them. Tariffs will also be eliminated across the board. This will prove disastrous not just for Colombian workers, but for U.S. workers who will be forced to compete with Colombians whose wages are kept down by the violent union-busting drives of the death squads.

Gerardo Cajamarca, a Colombian union leader living in exile in Chicago, says: “This is not an agreement, its an imposition . . . [Colombian President Alvaro Uribe] has made this decision behind the backs of the people, a decision that will only benefit transnational corporations and a small group of people.” Tens of thousands have expressed the same sentiments in demonstrations and strikes across the country over the past year – and many have faced threats, attacks, and intimidation for speaking out.

There is nothing free about a trade agreement with a country where trying to organize a union can get you killed. Please contact Senators Snowe and Collins and urge them to oppose the bilateral trade agreement with Colombia.

-- Sean Donahue

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