WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
23 Apr 2012 | Commentary | News

Paramilitaries Send Unionists an Invitation to Their Own Funeral

The Black Eagles paramilitary group sent an extremely troubling death threat to the leadership of SINTRAEMCALI, a trade union in Valle de Cauca, Colombia, on April 21. The threat specifically targeted Jorge Ivan Velez and Albert Quintero, President and Vice-President of SINTRAEMCALI, and included an invitation to their own funeral. The union received the threat one week after President Obama announced that the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement would enter into effect beginning on May 15, 2012, and the threat highlights the precarious situation of labor rights in the country and the dangers faced by those who seek to defend them.

In addition to the threat signed by the Black Eagles paramilitary group, the package (photo) consisted of two bullets, two roses, and a prayer book (photo) stating that their deaths would occur “very soon.” This threat is extremely concerning because it demonstrates that the paramilitaries have carried out surveillance operations against members of SINTRAEMCALI.

The death threat states the following:

“Special message for the trade unionists of SINTRAEMCALI, especially the President and Vice-President of that f*cking organization that is commanded by that pair of snitches, Jorge Ivan Velez and Albert Quintero. Those two motherf*ckers don’t know who they are messing with. I’m sending you this message because I think it is the last one that you will receive because we are going to shoot you for denouncing our bosses.

We’re sending you two bullets so that you can look and see which bullet will silence you for being f*gs. Each bullet has one of your names on it. Don’t think that your two bodyguards will be able to save you. They will have to watch over you in the cemetery. We’ve also noticed that you have been visiting the Attorney General’s Office often, but that won’t last long.

-Black Eagles”

WOLA has worked very closely with SINTRAEMCALI for several years to ensure their protection and the reintegration of 51 members of the union that were illegally fired in 2004. SINTRAEMCALI President Velez participated in a delegation hosted by WOLA in January 2012. The delegation met with members of the U.S. Congress, the Department of Labor, and the Department of State in order to explain the dire situation of his trade union (see the delegation’s letter sent to the U.S. Congress). In a phone interview with WOLA, Mr. Velez stated that he received this threat “for raising the profile of the case of SINTRAEMCALI internationally and domestically.”

Indeed, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has ruled on behalf of SINTRAEMCALI on several occasions (ILO Case 2356), and members of the U.S. Congress have urged the Colombian government to protect SINTRAEMCALI. Nevertheless, the Colombian government has not complied with the ILO recommendations to reintegrate the 51 unjustly fired workers, which led SINTRAEMCALI to hold a hunger strike in a public plaza in Cali for two months. Members of SINTRAEMCALI are frequently subjected to threats, attacks, and smear campaigns, while the government refuses to fully implement the ILO recommendations.

This threat by the Black Eagles paramilitaries demonstrates that trade unionists and labor activists are targeted precisely for defending basic labor rights. In order to effectively provide protection for labor rights defenders and show that violence and intimidation against this group will not be tolerated or condoned, the U.S. and Colombian governments must take immediate and decisive action to investigate this threat and fully prosecute the material and intellectual authors of the crime as mandated by the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan. Impunity for violence and intimidation against labor union activists in Colombia has allowed this practice to flourish and has greatly impeded efforts to defend labor rights. As indicated in the death threat, physical protection will not suffice—the paramilitaries and their benefactors must be brought to justice.