Murder of Trade Unionist Underscores Fragility of U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan

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On April 27, 2012, labor union leader Daniel Aguirre was murdered by an assailant who shot him in the head twice while he was walking home in the town of Florida in Valle del Cauca, Colombia. Mr. Aguirre was Secretary General of the SINALCORTEROS union and had been a leading figure in the sugarcane cutters’ movement since 2005.

Mr. Aguirre was one of the most determined and effective workers’ rights leaders in Colombia. He was instrumental to the success of the 2008 work stoppage which brought worldwide attention to labor abuses in the sugar sector. In 2008, Mr. Aguirre started receiving death threats due to his efforts to improve the labor conditions of sugarcane cutters. Armed groups operating in the region have continued to systematically threaten several sugarcane cutters for attempting to organize. Mr. Aguirre’s advocacy led the U.S. and Colombian governments to monitor the situation and take steps towards addressing labor abuses in Valle del Cauca’s sugar sector.

This murder comes two weeks after President Obama’s announcement at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, that there had been sufficient progress on the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP) to advance the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. WOLA has repeatedly warned that it was premature for the United States to declare a victory on the LAP. The precarious labor situation in Colombia is far from resolved. The Colombian government has not taken adequate steps to guarantee protection for trade unionists and activists, nor has it effectively addressed the extremely high levels of impunity in such killings. Since the LAP was signed by Presidents Santos and Obama on April 7, 2011, over 28 trade unionists have been killed, 2 have been disappeared, and more than 500 have been death threats.

WOLA strongly condemns the murder of Daniel Aguirre, who was a courageous leader for the rights of Colombian workers, and expresses our deepest condolences to his family and colleagues.

The killing of Daniel Aguirre is part of an upsurge in anti-labor violence in the last two weeks. Obama’s announcement in Cartagena to move forward with the FTA greatly reduced the U.S. government’s leverage on the protection of labor rights in Colombia. This seems to have emboldened the perpetrators of violence against labor activists.

We urge the Obama and Santos administrations to publicly speak out against this killing, and we urge the Santos administration to quickly investigate this crime and bring the perpetrators to justice. The freedom to organize without fear of reprisal is fundamental to the creation of a fair working environment—Mr. Aguirre’s murder is a tragic reminder that this freedom does not exist in Colombia.

This piece was written by the Washington Office on Latin America. To view the original posting of the this piece on the WOLA website, please click here.