Is Violence against Union Members in Colombia Systematic and Targeted?
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Is Violence against Union Members in Colombia Systematic and Targeted?

Violence against union members and union leaders has been at the center of a debate in Colombia and in countries currently negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia. In particular, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and union leaders in Colombia, Europe, Canada, and the United States persistently argue that FTAs with Colombia should be blocked because there are no results to be seen from attempts by the current Colombian government to halt violence against union members. Furthermore, a recent report by an NGO claims that “while the Colombian government claims that most of the violence against trade unions is a by-product of the armed conflict, the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), a respected NGO that provides training and support to the Colombian labor movement, says that the majority of the anti-union violence that takes place in Colombia is in response to the victims’ normal union activities” (see USLEAP 2008). Union leaders, for their part, have argued that under the Uribe administration, homicides of union members have increased. For instance, in a recent letter to the permanent representatives of the EU member states, John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), argues that “assassinations of trade unionists in Colombia continue at a rate unseen in any other country. . . . The country’s main trade union confederations, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores [Central Union of Workers], the Confederación General del Trabajo [General [End Page 119] Confederation of Labor], and the Confederación de Trabajadores de Colombia [Confederation of Workers of Colombia], are alerting us and providing documentation that refutes claims by the Uribe Government that the situation is under control.” He then asks the representatives to “call a halt to the FTA negotiation . . . and so make it clear to the Colombian authorities that the EU and its Member States do not condone the current situation in Colombia.”1 The topic of violence against union members in Colombia even reached the debates in the last U.S. presidential campaign. More precisely, in a debate in New York, then-senator Obama pointed to abuses in Colombia as the reason for his opposition to the FTA with Colombia, saying that labor leaders were being targeted for assassination on a consistent basis.2 The Colombian government defends itself, explaining that huge efforts have been made to protect unionists. During a speech in 2007, President Alvaro Uribe responded to a message sent by a U.S. member of Congress, arguing that 6,000 people in Colombia were receiving personal protection; of those, a fourth (1,500) were union members.3 And so the debate goes. Many points of view are presented in discussions, and FTAs continue to be blocked.

Despite the serious claims used to block economic reforms, the abundant available evidence is rarely used to support the allegations. What are the specific indicators for violence against union members in Colombia? How do they compare with those in other countries in the region? Has there been any progress in solving the problem? Can killings of union members in Colombia be explained by their involvement in union activities?

This paper first presents the main stylized facts on violence against union members in Colombia, comparing them with the evolution of the total homicide rate and with the homicide rate for other groups identified as vulnerable (journalists, council members, mayors, teachers and the indigenous population). We also compare the level of violence against unionists in Colombia with that in other Latin American countries. Then, using panel data for Colombia at the state level from 2000 to 2008, we test the claim that union activities (wage agreements and negotiations, strikes, work stoppages, street marches, and so forth) help explain the level of violence against union members in Colombia. Testing this hypothesis is a first step toward finding whether (on average) union members in Colombia are killed because of their involvement in union activities. [End Page 120] If this hypothesis is proved wrong, that would suggest that the argument being used to block economic reforms such as FTAs with the United States, Canada, and the European Union is not supported...