The face of anti-union violence in Colombia



Expressions of violence in Colombia are manifold.

As well as a long history of political violence, there is a long-running conflict between government forces, insurgents and paramilitaries.

On a societal level, official figures indicate that women have been most affected by the civil conflict which has plagued the country for half a century and generated one of the worst internal refugee crisis in the world.

Governmental agency Acción Social has registered 1.9 million female refugees in the country, of which, 30 per cent have abandoned their homes due to domestic violence.

In addition, social activists and, particularly, labour leaders are some of the most targeted victims.

One of the realities that characterises Colombia is the high level of anti-union violence. The figures speak for themselves: 2,932 murders registered since 1986, 5,915 death threats and 298 attempted murders.

Women are disproportionally affected.

According to data from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 274 women trade unionists were killed between 1986 and 2011.

Behind the statistics are people like trade unionist María Victoria Jiménez, a bacteriologist at the Santa Fe de Antioquia hospital and chair of the health workers’ union ANTHOC in her municipality.


Brutal attack

In 2009, when María Victoria returned from holidays, she sensed that something strange was brewing.

On two occasions, she had seen two men on a motorbike prowling around on the route she used to go to work.

On the night of 24 September, as she reached her home, she noticed that the light was out in the doorway to her house.

When she put the key in the door, she felt a hand over her mouth and the body of a man holding her from behind and hitting her all over.

The lights instantly came on in the house.

Desperately struggling to get away, María Victoria fell to the ground and saw that she was in fact being attacked by two men.

She tried to raise her head to see who they were but received a final blow to the face before she could get a look at them.

Frightened by the light and the cries of her mother, the two men fled leaving her lying on the floor.

She was rushed into hospital with seven knife wounds and her nose destroyed by the final blow delivered when she was on the ground.

She had to undergo 12 operations, including many to reconstruct her nose.


Trade unions

The assault suffered by María Victoria was motivated by her role as a trade union leader.

Prior to the attack, she had denounced an appointment that had been made without following the proper merit-based selection procedure.

At the same time, she had noticed that a number of thefts were being committed by local contractors, and set herself the task of investigating them.

On recovering from the attack, she returned to work, sharing the same space with the person she suspected had been involved in the attack.

The situation then took an unexpected turn. Her family started receiving relentless intimidating phone calls.

One of Maria’s cousins came up with the idea of offering money to the man who was threatening them, so that he would leave them in peace.

After that, everything changed. The man not only stopped threatening her family but also, in exchange for money, sent them evidence and the names of the people behind the attack.

María Victoria handed this evidence over to the Public Prosecutions Office and the investigator appointed to the case managed to identify the six people implicated in the attempted murder, but very little progress was nonetheless made in resolving the case.

She is convinced that the gender factor has played a significant role, both with regard to the pressure placed by the hospital administration and the Public Prosecutor’s assertion that it was a crime of passion.

"Things would have been different if it had been a man in my situation," she concludes.

The investigation into her case was reopened a few weeks ago, but the trade unionist suspects that the crime is going to go unpunished.

She has been battling with new threats and acts of intimidation against herself and her family over recent months.

But every incident, every threat, every moment of anguish, rather than making her give in, have strengthened her resolve.

Not only has she returned to Santa Fe de Antioquia, but she has also resumed her role as the branch chair of the union.

She will not be forced into silence or stop fighting alongside her colleagues to defend their rights. On the contrary: she is determined to make her voice heard over those that want to silence her.