“In 1994, they killed my son, a boy of 12 who didn’t have anything to do with this. Then, in the same year, they killed some of my colleagues,” said Luis Lara, leader of Frente Nacional de Lucha (FNL), a public services trade union in Guatemala.
“Later they kidnapped my daughter: threw her in a car, tortured her, did what they wanted to her and took her to a deserted place.
"They thought they’d killed her – they gave her a tiro de gracia [coup de grâce] to guarantee that she was dead. But there in the darkness I don’t know what happened. She must have moved and the bullet passed through her eye. After that she went into exile.”
Lara’s shocking account is just one of many horrific stories from labour activists in Guatemala. At the most recent count, it is estimated that at least 63 trade unionists have been killed in the Central American nation. Not a single person has been jailed for these crimes.
However, labour officials say the real figure is a lot higher and that if the Guatemalan government does not improve the situation soon, it could face calls for economic sanctions and lose its free trade agreements with Europe and the United States.
“The many assassinations of trade unionists make Guatemala the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist today,” said Stephen Benedict, director of the Human and Trade Union Rights department at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
“Workers and their unions continue to face widespread violations of the most basic rights such as the right to organise and to negotiate on behalf of the workers they represent. They daily contend with harassment, interventions from employers and government officials in union matters, and ultimately death threats and assassinations.”
Culture of impunity
It’s no secret that Central America is a dangerous region – according to the ITUC, between 2009 and 2012, 38 trade unionists were killed in Guatemala, 23 in Honduras and eight in Mexico.
But the situation is particularly dire in Guatemala where violence is endemic and the murder rate lies at 34 per 100,000 people.
In 1996, Guatemala emerged from a brutal 36-year civil war, which killed 200,000 people and displaced 50,000, leaving the state with few, inefficient, and often corrupt institutions.
According to human rights lawyers, Guatemala’s weak law enforcement and judicial system fuels a culture of impunity and fear. When unionists campaign for better labour rights, it isn’t difficult for those with power and money to pay someone to silence them.
In the past few months, several high-level international trade union delegations have visited Guatemala to investigate the situation for labour activists and urge the government of Otto Pérez Molina to tackle the impunity which allows the perpetrators of these crimes to walk free.
In March, the Guatemalan government signed an agreement with the ITUC and the International Labour Organization (ILO) to investigate and prosecute crimes against trade unionists.
However, a few days after the ILO mission left the country, three labour activists were killed.
Five months later, the global union federation Public Services International (PSI) met with Pérez Molina to urge his government to take action against the wave of trade unionist deaths, or risk action against its favoured trade status – particularly with the European Union Central American Association Agreement (EU-CAAA).
Lack of progress
In September, the ILO returned to analyse the government’s progress and consult with its in-country representative who was installed in July 2013 as one of the terms of the March agreement.
“There are some signs of change, but it’s all going too slowly,” Luc Cortebeeck, Chair of the ILO’s Workers’ Group, told Equal Times.
“The changes are the result of the influence of international actors, but the power of the landowners and capital-owners remains strong.”
In a bid to retain its free trade agreements, the Guatemalan government says it is keen to comply with international standards and improve the situation for trade unionists.
However, since the governing centre-right Patriotic Party holds just 58 of the 158 seats in Congress, the necessary legislation regarding labour matters is yet to be passed.
“The government is paralysed by the political system. Unfortunately, Guatemala’s employers have not exercised their considerable political weight to push for the necessary changes,” said Cortebeeck.
Terrorists, death threats and campaigns
Many trade unionists in Guatemala have received death threats and are targeted by negative media campaigns, which explains why trade union membership currently stands at just 1.6 per cent of the working population.
“A short while ago, a newspaper printed a pamphlet which listed a number of terrorists and I was on it. Terrorism? Because I fight for justice, equality and peace? For democracy? Things that in the rest of the world are commonplace and respected,” said Lara.
“These [newspaper] supplements are expensive. Where does the money come from? Who’s paying to destroy the very people who are fighting for democracy?”
The Guatemalan government insists it is doing all it can to improve the situation and has offered police protection to a handful of threatened trade union leaders.
“In March of this year, we set up a trade union roundtable with the Interior Minister and all of the trade union leaders,” said Carlos Contreras Solórzano, Guatemala’s Labour Minister.
“The aim is to develop prevention policies to avoid and prevent attacks against workers and leaders of the trade unions and to exchange information in order to combat the criminals or perpetrators.
“To guarantee that crimes against trade union leaders do not go unpunished, we implemented a taskforce between the attorney general and Guatemala’s main trade union leaders.”
However, Benedict argues that these approaches are not working.
“The government needs to take the necessary measures to provide effective protection to trade unionists under threat. The existing system of asking trade unionists to call a mobile number is not a solution.
“This was the case recently when a trade unionist called the mobile and was told that his risk situation would be ‘evaluated’. He was assassinated the next day.”
PSI is once again calling for President Pérez Molina to take urgent action and protect trade unionists after four more of its members were attacked in Guatemala in October, leaving one in a coma and others fearing for their lives.
While the attorney general’s work at tackling impunity has been commended, in order to reduce the number of anti-unionist crimes various Guatemalan labour laws need to be changed to comply with ILO conventions, offer more protection to workers and award labour inspectors the authority to impose sanctions.
At the end of October 2013, the ILO will discuss whether or not to instigate a Commission of Inquiry in Guatemala, which is the highest-level of investigative procedure.
This type of in-depth inquiry has only been performed 11 times in nearly 100 years of the ILO’s existence.
“For Guatemala, it could be very bad news for the trade agreements with USA and Europe and for the cooperation programmes,” said Cortebeeck.