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Story Publication logo November 5, 2013

A Daughter's Quest for Justice in Colombia


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As Colombia struggles to free itself from a vortex of violence, union members, human rights...

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Yessika Hoyos. Image by Stephen Franklin. Colombia, 2013.

The day after killers shot her father, a trade unionist, at point blank range, seventeen-year-old Yessika Hoyos vowed that his murder would not be forgotten.

She kept the promise. Yessika became a lawyer and met face-to-face with one of her father's killers in prison in her unending search for higher-ups who allegedly ordered his death.

The journey has mostly been a painful one for her and many of the families of the more than 2,900 union members killed in Colombia since 1986.

Jorge Dario Hoyos's murder in 2001 was part of a spree that marked Colombia as the world's most dangerous place for unionists. The open season on labor activists was the major reason why the free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia was held up in Washington, D.C., for five years. Congress approved it only after the Obama Administration promoted a deal it had reached with Colombia to institute rights and protections for workers and unions.

But two years after the agreement went into effect, violence against union members lingers on. Murders are down, but threats and attacks on union members jumped by about 50 percent in the last year, especially for those trying to assert the trade agreement's promises for workers, say officials with the National Labor School in Medellin, a respected source on labor data.

"The threats have an impact on people. You don't need to kill that many people for others to know that there is danger," says Todd Howland, the Representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia.

Yessika Hoyos, for example, fled for her safety to the United States last year for several months after an underground group targeted her.

Hoyos belongs to a law firm that represents union members, human rights activists, and others caught up in Colombia's long civil war. It has joined an appeal to the International Criminal Court to intervene in Colombia because of what it describes as the government's failure to investigate officials' roles in union members' deaths.

Despite an increased effort to protect union officials and to prosecute the crimes against them, the government has failed to halt the threats, union officials say. Indeed, Colombia's attorney general's office could point to only two convictions for threats against union members. And the vast majority of the murders have gone unsolved.

"The problem is that the government's response is haphazard and only in response to pressure," said Rhett Doumitt, who leads the AFL-CIO-funded Solidarity Center office in Bogota. "There's no systematic adoption of the new laws."

In Hoyos's case, the day after her father's killing, the deluge of threats was so great the family couldn't file a report with police. The threats forced them to flee to Bogota, where they repeatedly moved as the threats persisted.

For years, her family lived with threatening calls, funeral prayer cards, funeral wreaths, and bullets in the mail.

Two years after the murder, two hit men were found guilty and given twenty-three-year prison terms. But prosecutors said the killing was a crime of passion, not union related. One of the killers died in prison, an apparent suicide from a gun that had been smuggled in to him, she says.

Unions represent about 4 percent of Colombia's workers, down from more than 15 percent twenty years ago. The number declined as the violence drove workers away from unions, and as companies increasingly found ways—often brutal and illegal—to shut them down.
The unions that face some of the greatest threats today work in the sugar, palm oil, ports, and petroleum industries—places with long histories of anti-union violence.

Mariely Cely Silva knows this well. She is a young lawyer and community organizer who works with palm oil workers in north-central Colombia.

"They have no labor rights," she explains. "They pay for their own health benefits, tools, and clothing. And they have no vacations. After what they pay, they earn $5 a day."

Two years ago, Colombian officials fined a palm oil company 
$1 million for violating labor laws, a step ballyhooed by the government. But the fine has not been paid yet. While U.S. officials said the company is still fighting the case in court, union officials argue that the labor ministry has the right to enforce the fines in the meantime.

Silva says she files complaints regularly with the government about companies' efforts to squash union organizing drives. But so far, she said, nothing has happened.

"The government is incapable of enforcing the laws," she says.

A more pressing reality for Silva, however, is staying alive. "We get threats daily," she says. "Some people even come to our office and tell us to stop what we are doing."

As a safety precaution, she recently moved to a nearby town. But she knows that doesn't mean much.

"That's why I'm not married," she says. "And I've decided to distance myself from my family. I don't want them hurt. And I'm very careful when I meet new people. That's my strategy."

Mauricio Ramos also has good reason to worry. When he talks about the threats, his face shows his fear. He is a small, thin man who has spent most of his life working as a sugar cane cutter in the lush green fields near Cali.

He leads a small group of sugarcane workers in Cali struggling to organize a grower. They were spurred on by low wages, contracts that last only three or six months, and the firing of workers just before they qualify for pensions.

The workers struck last December, and the company promptly fired ninety-seven of them, he says. The union was able to get seventy workers rehired, but when it pressed on, the threats came. "There were vigilantes who came to our meetings," Ramos recalls.

Juan Carlos Perez Munoz was the group's outspoken voice and its leader until an early morning in January. He had just left his house and headed for work when two men on motorcycles shot him dead. He was thirty years old, married, and had two children.

Ramos, who took over the group, soon began receiving calls that said, "We'll kill you, too."

He has not heard from government investigators about their progress on the Munoz case since talking with them after the killing. Asked about the situation, Colombian officials in Bogota say the investigation is still under way. Nor has the Colombian government an­swered his request for protection, Ramos adds.

The agency that was set up for this purpose two years ago currently protects 7,718 persons, among them 616 out of 1,227 union members who have applied, according to an agency official.

"The majority of people who receive threats are under protection," says an agency official who asked not to be named. Many of the risks cited by union members are "ordinary ones" that do not require protection, the official added.

But union members say their requests are often lost in the bureaucracy or turned down, even when the risks are deadly.

Hector Sanchez is an organizer for a union that represents about 18,000 petroleum industry workers. The union has had 107 of its members killed over the years, says union president Rodolfo Vecino Acevedo, who himself has a government-provided guard.

Locked in a combative organizing drive against an oil company, Sanchez says he has faced a steady stream of threats. One letter arrived with a large black cross through it. Another anonymous person recently explained how he would kill him, his wife, and his young son. Failing to get results from pleas for protection from police and other officials in his northern Colombia city, Sanchez went to Bogota to file in person a request for protection.

Is this the way the workers were supposed to be protected? U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., who would only speak on background, were generally positive about what's been happening in Colombia. They said that the decline in deaths has been significant, and that Colombia's funding for protection efforts has increased dramatically.

"The Colombians have successfully met the milestones," said one official, referring to the provisions laid out in the trade agreement regarding unions and workers. U.S. officials hear the complaints raised by unions and others and are "engaged" with the Colombians about them, he said.

"This is not a black and white thing," the official added.
Alfonso Cuellar, deputy chief of mission for Colombia in Washington, D.C., reeled off numerous changes for workers and unions under the free trade agreement during the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, who was elected in 2010. Santos has, in fact, taken some broad actions that have infuriated rightwing critics, such as beginning talks with the FARC, the guerrillas who have waged war for decades, and mending relations with Venezuela.

"I want justice to go faster. I want less impunity over time," says Cuellar. "We have a long way to go, but we've gone way beyond anyone before us."

Still, Santos's center-right government's bungling of its pledge to workers has prompted criticism. The Colombians made a promise, and they need to live up to it, says Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli of the Washington Office on Latin America.

There is "a lack of political will to really get at the intellectual authors of these crimes," she says. "We are talking about business interests and the elite that are linked to this violence."

You don't need to tell Yessika Hoyos that. She recalls visiting the man in prison who killed her father.

"When I saw him, I tried to be strong, but I wept," she says. "He asked me for forgiveness." He told her that he knew her because the plan at one point called for killing the children, too.

He also told her that he had taken his orders from police, and warned that she would be killed if she searched for them.

"Don't worry about me," she replied.

She kept compiling information and turned it over to a special investigator. In 2007, a police lieutenant was found guilty in her father's death. But the officer had been a fugitive for years and had died a year before the trial against him.

In her office recently, Yessika gets a call on her cell phone and a number flashes on its screen. It is someone who has been providing information on her father's death.

"Oh, Papa," she whispers aloud, picking up the phone.


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