“My Father was a Dreamer”: Violence Against Trade Unionists in Colombia

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"My father was a dreamer. He was a cheerful, generous man. He was our friend and our hero, the man who helped us discover the world."

These are the words of Yessica Hoyos Morales, whose father, Jorge Darío Hoyos Franco, a Colombian labor leader, was assassinated in 2001 by two hired hitmen, as she testified to a hearing held February 12th by the House Committee on Education and Labor, chaired by Representative George Miller (D-CA).

"Even when I was very young," she said, "I was witness to raids on our house by police, threats to my father. We received phone calls, funeral prayer cards, funeral wreaths [as death threats], persecution. This was how I learned that union activity in Colombia is dangerous, and that thinking and protesting puts your life at risk." 

Yessica then described how, on the day of her father's funeral, the threats began to be focused on her family as they searched for justice in his murder. Her family had to leave their home for the capital city of Bogotá, but since the threats followed them there, they had to keep moving, moving five times in one year.

National Labor School (ENS) Director José Luciano Sanin Vasquez presented the overall picture of labor violence, with assassinations of labor leaders increasing 25 percent in 2008 after some years of declining homicides which still left Colombia frequently in the position of having more labor leaders killed than in the rest of the world combined. He noted that the level of impunity in these cases which reached 96 percent. On the Committee on Education and Labor's website, you can see the hearing statements and a video webcast.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the hearing was the clear recommendations by Sanin as well as by labor court judge Josée Nirio Sánchez, about the need to focus on the intellectual authors, not just the material authors, of the killings. Sanin also emphasized that the killings have been concentrated in just 6 departments of Colombia, and that the Colombian Attorney General’s office, rather than just pursuing these cases individually, needed to look at the overall patterns.

While many of the members of Congress present asked questions that revealed their concerns about labor killings in Colombia, Rep. Souder (R-IN) complained that none of the witnesses described the beauty of Colombia.

Judge José Nirio Sánchez replied to this. "I love my country and I am pained by these murders of labor leaders," he explained. That is why, he said, he wanted to see a better response from the justice system in uncovering these crimes. Judge Sánchez has been praised for his efforts but was not reappointed to his post.

Rep. Miller also touched on this issue in his closing remarks, noting that when he visited Chile under Pinochet he was urged to see Chile's beautiful beaches or go shopping, and that when he visited El Salvador under D'Aubuisson he was urged to see the beauty of El Salvador. 

President Uribe responded to the hearing saying, "We don’t need the United States or any other country to tell us to protect our workers." (El Espectador, February 14, 2009)

This hearing and Rep. Miller's (D-CA) pledge to keep focused on the issue of violence against trade unionists was a breath of fresh air.

For more information about violence against trade unionists in Colombia, see: