COTORRA, Colombia — It was a savage, mafia-style hit.
Alejandro Peñata, a Colombian teacher and union activist, was strangled with a length of barbed wire that was still coiled around his neck when his brother fished his corpse out of a drainage ditch.
Peñata, 35, was a social studies teacher and school vice principal in Cotorra, a hamlet in the northern department of Cordoba, which is under siege from drug trafficking gangs. His wife, Lilian Perez, described Peñata as slightly nerdish, a man so dedicated to his job that he relaxed by reading teaching manuals. Why, she wonders, would anyone want him dead?
Like so many other cases involving Colombian union activists, mystery shrouds the killing of Peñata on June 20, 2011. Seven months after he was garroted, there have been no arrests. As he sat in a rocking chair sobbing so hard that his body quivered, Miguel Peñata, Alejandro’s 78-year-old father, said: “My son didn’t deserve to die like that.”
Peñata’s murder helps illustrate why, according to Human Rights Watch, Colombia remains the most dangerous country on Earth for labor activists. The U.S. State Department points out that more than half of the 90 trade unionists killed around the world in 2010 were Colombians.
The ongoing violence prompted Washington to condition passage of a free trade agreement with the Bogota government to a so-called Labor Action Plan that sets benchmarks and timetables for improving worker rights. But 10 months after the plan was signed, critics contend that hopeful rhetoric from Colombian officials doesn't square with the slow pace of progress on the ground.
“Unions are still being undermined,” Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who is part of a Congressional group monitoring compliance with the Labor Action Plan, told GlobalPost.
“Human rights have to be more than an afterthought,” McGovern continued. “If the Colombian government does not keep its promises, many of us (in Congress) would strongly urge the Obama administration to halt the implementation of the trade agreement.”
McGovern’s skepticism is echoed by Celeste Drake, an international trade policy specialist at the AFL-CIO. She points out that death threats, union-busting tactics by businesses and other forms of intimidation — which don’t grab as many headlines as killings but can prevent Colombian workers from organizing in the first place — have increased over the past five years.
After a quarter century of horrific violence against union members, Drake said, “It really does take a lot of time and commitment for a culture to say: ‘We will not tolerate this anymore.’”
Colombian officials insist they are making headway.
They point out that the overall murder rate of union members has tapered off. President Juan Manuel Santos re-opened the Labor Ministry, which had been shuttered by his predecessor, and named a former union confederation leader, Angelino Garzon, as his vice president.
Santos also agreed to the Labor Action Plan which helped convince the U.S. Congress in October to ratify the trade agreement, which had been shelved since 2006 largely due to concerns among Democrats about the violent repression of labor unions.
“These commitments lay the groundwork for significant labor rights improvements in Colombia,” U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said last week after meeting in Washington with Colombian Labor Minister Rafael Pardo.
But as labor advocates are quick to point out, Colombia still has a very long way to go.
Luciano Sanin, executive director of the National Labor School, a Medellin-based research center, says the hostility stands in sharp contrast to many other Latin American nations where workers have been fortified over the years by pro-labor governments.
They included Juan Perón’s populist regime in Argentina in the 1940s and 50s, the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico for decades, and most recently the Workers’ Party in Brazil. Before serving as president of Brazil from 2002 to 2010, Luiz Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was president of the country’s steel workers union.
In Argentina, 38 percent of the labor force is now unionized while the rate is 17 percent in Mexico and 21 percent in Brazil, according to the National Labor School. In Colombia, by contrast, just 4 percent of workers belong to unions — one of the lowest rates in the hemisphere.
Within Colombia’s unionized work force, teachers compose the largest bloc with 27 percent. Partly due to their sheer numbers and nationwide presence, educators also make up the largest number of victims. In addition, they come under fire for their role as vanguards of knowledge, reform, and freedom of expression in remote and lawless areas.
“We feel like we’re in the middle of a hurricane,” said Alvaro Gonzalez, a high school professor in Cotorra who worked alongside Peñata before he was strangled. “We wonder: Who will be next?”
Among the 51 Colombian union members killed in 2010, 29 were teachers. Last year, professors made up 14 of the 26 labor activists murdered in Colombia.
Over the past 25 years in Cordoba, nearly 100 teachers have been killed — so many that the Cordoba teacher’s union, known as ADEMACOR, commissioned a sculpture in their honor.
Unveiled in 2009, the fiberglass-and-steel art work titled “Monument to the Fallen Teacher,” adorns the entrance to ADEMACOR’s headquarters in Monteria, the provincial capital. It depicts a martyred professor sprawled face down, his fingers wrapped around a diploma in a defiant death grip.
The Dirty War
Made up of tailors and shoemakers, Colombia’s first legally recognized union emerged in 1909. But Sanin, of the National Labor School, said a series of military and conservative governments viewed the labor movement as a kind of disloyal opposition. However, it was the country’s guerrilla war, which began a half century ago and still rages today, that provoked a far more brutal backlash.
For decades, leftists had been shut out of Colombia’s political system which gave rise to a handful of rebel groups in the 1960s. Guerrilla commanders and union leaders often espoused the same left-wing rhetoric and, in a few cases, labor activists gave up on legal politics and joined the rebels.
“Some union members obeyed the interests of the guerrillas rather than the interests of the workers. It was obvious and it did a lot of damage to the labor movement,” Labor Minister Pardo told GlobalPost. “Of course, none of this justifies the violence against the unions.”
Although limited, the rebel connection allowed paramilitaries to paint the entire labor movement as a den of Communists and to begin hunting down union activists en masse. These right-wing death squads worked in cahoots with the Colombian Army and were often financed by business leaders and land owners who had no interest in seeing their workers organize.
The death toll was staggering. Nearly 3,000 union activists — including close to 1,000 teachers — have been killed since 1986, according to the National Labor School.
Still, one imprisoned former paramilitary commander, Ever Veloza Garcia, who admitted to killing 18 labor activists in the mid-1990s, told prosecutors that he often acted on erroneous information. Many of his victims, Veloza concluded, had no ties to the guerrillas.
In some cases, the Colombian government ignored the bloodshed — or actively participated. Jose Miguel Vivanco, who heads the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said the paramilitaries “historically operated with the toleration or even active support of members of the public security forces, as well as in collaboration with politicians and allies in the private sector.”
One of the most outrageous cases involved the the country’s now-shuttered intelligence agency, known as the DAS, which provided information to paramilitaries on union activists who were later assassinated. Among them was Alfredo Correa de Andreis, a university sociology professor who was investigating illegal land seizures in northern Colombia. Working with intelligence provided by the DAS, motorcycle hit men gunned down Correa de Andreis in September 2004.
“Academia is, in many ways, the engine that drives a pluralistic, democratic society,” Elizabeth Brumfiel, president of the American Anthropological Association, wrote in a letter to the Colombian government shortly after the Correa killing. “Every time a student, a schoolteacher, or a university professor is lost to an act of violence in Colombia, public trust in the educational system is compromised and confidence in the future is diminished.”
Mystery and impunity
Under a government peace process, the paramilitaries formally disarmed in the mid-2000s. Last year, in a rare case of justice being served, former DAS director Jorge Noguera was convicted for his role in the killing of Correa de Andreis and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
But teachers and other trade unionists remain in the crossfire.
Many former paramilitary fighters have gone on to form a new generation of armed groups dedicated to drug trafficking, extortion and other crimes. These organizations, which now have about 6,000 members, are called bandas criminales in Spanish, or "bacrim." Colombian security officials say they now pose an even greater threat to national security than the guerrillas.
The bacrim often go after teachers and anyone else who gets in their way, according to Domingo Ayala, president of ADEMACOR, the Cordoba teachers’ union, who has been assigned a bodyguard from the Interior Ministry after receiving death threats.
With the rise to the bacrim, which have no political ideology, the traditional Cold War paradigm that once drove anti-union violence has given way to a murkier set of motives. The Peñata killing in Cordoba, which has become a key cocaine-smuggling corridor for the bacrim, is a prime example.
Peñata’s motorcycle and personal documents were found next to the drainage canal indicating it wasn’t a robbery gone awry. A police investigator told GlobalPost that his men found a logbook indicating that Peñata owed loan sharks about $17,000. But Perez, Peñata’s wife, pointed out that the couple lived modestly in a rented house and had no children to support.
“This is a total mystery,” she said.
At the school in Cotorra, a sun-drenched village surrounded by cattle ranches and cotton farms where Peñata worked, several of his former colleagues said Peñata was always agitating to improve working conditions. Peñata had accused the principal of misusing school funds and the two men clashed over the leaky roof in the teachers’ lounge and the Spartan classrooms that lacked everything from light bulbs to textbooks.
“Alejandro complained a lot which is why we think his death was related to his role as a teacher,” said Gonzalez, who has worked at the school for 18 years.
That possibility is why the Peñata case has been transferred to a special unit within the Colombian Attorney General’s office that investigates anti-union crimes. But of the 195 murder cases that the special unit has taken on since it began operating in 2007, there have been just six convictions, according to Human Rights Watch.
This widespread impunity has a chilling effect on the labor movement. Whether Peñata was killed for personal or political reasons, Gonzalez says, the mystery surrounding his death will make teachers and other workers balk when it comes to demanding their rights and joining unions in the future.
On the other hand, he says, the assassins won’t think twice about striking again because they almost always get away with murder.
Threat level: Severe
Yet most of the time, the gunmen don’t even have to pull the trigger. Sanin says that a single, threatening message is often enough to disrupt organizing drives or to convince activists to flee.
A chilling example took place in Dorada, an impoverished, off-the-map hamlet in southern Cordoba where Indira Parra accepted a job as a school psychologist and social studies teacher. But shortly after she arrived in 2008, members of a bacrim called the Black Eagles moved into Dorada.
Its members informed villagers that they were their new overlords and began patrolling the streets at night, Parra said. They also stressed that officers at the nearest police station 10 miles away were no longer welcome in Dorada.
When the police learned of the meeting, agents made a brief appearance in the village to reassert their authority. They also visited Parra at the school and handed out candy to her students. That afternoon while Parra was walking home, one of the Black Eagles approached her.
“He told me: ‘If the police keep coming here, you are going to pay for it,’” she recalled.
Parra shrugged off the threat and immersed herself in her job. In villages like Dorada, where there’s not even a church and the only symbol of the government’s presence is the school, teachers often become respected community leaders. Parra used her influence to convince local teenagers to resist the lure of the Black Eagles, who were offering teenagers monthly stipends to serve as informants and drug runners.
“A lot of students wanted to join. I told them: ‘No. You need to study to have a better future,’” Parra said.
“Teachers are union members,” she continued. “We fight for the rights (of teachers and students) but not through violence. We do it pacifically. So, the bacrim began to view me as an obstacle.”
Soon, Parra discovered graffiti on the bathroom wall of the school saying she would be raped and killed. She scrubbed the wall clean but the threatening language reappeared. Students began showing up at school with machetes and handguns and several dropped out to join the Black Eagles.
Finally, Parra requested a transfer. After leaving Dorada she filed a criminal complaint but her case remains in limbo. In fact, the special unit at the Attorney General’s office has failed to obtain a single conviction for the more than 1,500 threats against union members registered since 2007, according to Human Rights Watch.
A growing number of these threats are aimed at teachers’ wallets. In the village of Las Delicias in southern Cordoba, for example, all 42 teachers came under pressure to make payoffs to a local bacrim.
Educators, it turns out, are often the only people in rural communities who receive regular monthly salaries. And as members of unions that bargain collectively to set pay scales and working conditions their wages – though hardly lavish – are better than the average. Many earn around $800 a month, more than twice the minimum wage.
“If you are part of a union,” Sanin said, “the union can pull you out of poverty.”
But decent paychecks can also turn teachers into easy marks, said Alexander Fernandez, the vice principal of the combined elementary and high school in Las Delicias.
Last May, Fernandez and other teachers in Las Delicias received messages on their mobile phones instructing them to pool their resources and come up with about $3,000 to pay a bacrim commander. When they refused, a subsequent message upped the figure to about $8,000 and said the teachers had one week to meet the new demand. Fearing for their lives, the teachers closed the school and fled with some taking refuge in the ADEMCACOR union hall in Monteria.
During a recent visit to Las Delicias, the only person at the school, a complex of one-story concrete buildings shaded by almond trees, was a janitor who doubled as the security guard. Dust lay thick on the desks while the chalkboards were still marked with verb conjugations and math equations.
“People panicked and we all left the village,” explained Fernandez, who was eventually transferred to another school and now lives in Monteria. “It was a very painful chapter in our lives.”
John Otis is GlobalPost's correspondent in Colombia.
This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.