Kidnapping, torture and death – part of the job for Guatemala's trade unionists
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Kidnapping, torture and death – part of the job for Guatemala's trade unionists

“In 1994 they killed my son,” says Luis Lara.

“A boy of 12 who didn’t have anything to do with this. In the same year, some of my colleagues were murdered and then my daughter was kidnapped. They threw her inside a car, tortured her, did what they wanted to her and then took her to an empty place. They shot her in the head to make sure she was dead. But there in the darkness, I don’t know what happened. She must have moved because the bullet went through her eye. They thought they’d killed her, but around 5 in the morning, a man found her. After that she went into exile.”

Luis Lara isn’t a politician, a drug lord or a wealthy businessman. He’s a former child laborer turned trade unionist, who campaigns for better rights for workers in the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist – Guatemala.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 73 trade unionists have been murdered in the Central American nation since 2007, but no one has been convicted of the crimes. Guatemalan workers and their unions face widespread violations of the most basic rights and contend with harassment, interventions from employers and ultimately death threats and assassinations.

“Labor and trade union rights violations are the rule, not the exception in Guatemala,” says Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International, a global trade union federation representing 20 million workers around the world.

“A wide range of punitive measures are used against trade union members, from threats, relocation, redeployment and dismissal to administrative sanctions and criminal convictions, physical attacks and murder,” says Pavanelli. “Although Guatemala is one of the most unequal countries in the world, privatization of public services continues. The repression against those who speak up is guided by the interests of international corporations and the national elite.”

Having recently emerged from a bloody history of military dictatorship and civil war, Guatemala now finds itself caught up in another conflict being fought by regional drug cartels. According to human rights organizations, the country’s weak judicial system fuels a culture of impunity and fear, making it relatively easy for those with power and money to silence unionists campaigning for better labor rights, without any repercussions.

After Lara’s daughter was kidnapped, both of them were offered asylum by the U.S. Embassy. But while she chose to flee, he refused to give up the fight to which he’d dedicated his life.

“I didn’t want to go into exile, to flee and suffer in another country and be far away from what I really loved,” says Lara. “I have a deep love for this fight. We are fighting for democracy in Guatemala — that’s our fight. And it’s not an armed fight, it’s a fight to build peace with positive actions.”

Death threats a daily part of life

As a result of anti-union violence, just 1.6 percent of the working population is affiliated with a union, leaving millions of workers vulnerable to labor rights violations.

Over the past year a number of international delegations have visited the country to meet with President Otto Pérez Molina and urge the government to take action over the wave of deaths. They say if there is no improvement, Guatemala could lose its favored trade status with the European Union and the United States, which would reduce its competitiveness in the region.

Meanwhile, the Guatemalan government promises that it is doing everything possible to prevent new attacks against unionists. It has offered to increase protection for union workers who feel their lives are in danger and created a number of roundtables to deal with the issue.

“[The roundtables] have the objective of developing prevention policies to avoid attacks against workers and union leaders […] and exchanging information to be able to combat the criminals or the perpetrators of the crimes,” says Guatemalan Labor Minister Carlos Contreras Solórzano.

However, Lara says this isn’t enough. He is angry that there are still no firm sentences for the hit men that have threatened and murdered his colleagues.

He can’t remember exactly how many death threats he’s received, but thinks it’s probably somewhere between 10 and 15.

“Almost everyone here has received death threats,” he says, pointing to his colleagues at Frente Nacional de Lucha, a Guatemalan trade union. “It’s rare not to receive one. The last one I received was more or less a year ago. Someone put my name in an obituary — as if I were dead. They splashed blood on it and left it where I’d find it, like saying: ‘you’re already dead.'”

“A newspaper also published a supplement saying I was a terrorist. But terrorism because you demand justice, equality, peace, because you demand democracy? All those elements that around the world are common and respected. Here they might be written down, but they’re not respected.”

A protest led by trade unions in Guatemala. Photo: Frente Nacional de Lucha

A protest led by trade unions in Guatemala. Photo: Frente Nacional de Lucha

“The fear’s always been there”

In March 2013, the Guatemalan government signed an agreement with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to investigate and prosecute crimes against trade union members. However, just days after the mission left the country, three more trade unionists were murdered. A permanent ILO representative has since been instated in Guatemala.

The ILO recently decided to postpone until November a vote on whether to initiate a Commission of Inquiry in Guatemala. This type of in-depth inquiry has only been performed 11 times in the ILO’s nearly 100 years of existence.

“For Guatemala [a Commission of Inquiry] could be very bad news for the trade agreements with USA and Europe and for the cooperation programs,” says Luc Cortebeeck, Chair of the ILO Workers Group.

“Today the union movement has new challenges,” says Lara. “Before, you knew who the owner of a business was, but now you have no clue. The owner could be hidden away over there, he could be a drug trafficker or someone involved in organized crime. There are visible enemies and then there are invisible enemies and when you touch their interests they turn on you.”

Still, Lara says he’s never considered another career and has become accustomed to the fear that accompanies him in his daily life.

“The fear’s always been there. It brings you down today and tomorrow you get up again — it never goes away but we’ve made the decision to continue with our fight in the middle of all these fears, of all these threats. I’ll keep fighting, it’s not about resigning and walking away.”