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Murder of a trade unionist at the hands of paramilitaries
Book review: Luciano vive
Daniel Edgar / Miércoles 3 de febrero de 2016

A book recently published by the trade union Sinaltrainal (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores del Sistema Agroalimentario – the National Food Industry Trade Union) describes the search for truth, justice, integral reparation and guarantee of non-repetition concerning the assassination of one of its leaders, Luciano Enrique Romero Molina, on 11 September 2005.

Luciano Romero had worked for a Colombian subsidiary of the swiss food industry multinational Nestlé (Cicolac) in Valledupar since 1982; he was also a longstanding member of Sinaltrainal, and he became one of its most prominent leaders in Valledupar and nationally due to his dedication to his workmates and organisational ability. He was also one of Sinaltrainal´s official delegates to the human rights organisation Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos (Solidarity with Political Prisoners), and the Secretary of Human Rights for the Central Workers Union (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, CUT), the national federation of trade unions in Colombia.

Luciano was assassinated in Valledupar on 11 September 2005 by paramilitaries in apparent collaboration with State intelligence agents. He had been forced into exile in Spain late in 2004 following repeated death threats from the local paramilitary group, but returned to Valledupar several months later to continue fighting for trade union and human rights in his home town.
Sinaltrainal was formed in the early 1980s to represent workers in the food and beverage industries. As with many civil society organisations and social movements in Colombia, since it was founded the members and leadership of Sinaltrainal have been faced with a systematic and ruthless assault from the coordinated actions of State terror and persecution (including judicial, bureaucratic, political and police persecution and harassment), combined with intransigent hostility, obstruction and sabotage by many of the companies whose workers Sinaltrainal represents, as well as constant death threats punctuated by frequent assassinations by the “dark forces” that have terrorized Colombia over the last three decades.

Available information suggests that such assassinations are most often committed by ultra right wing paramilitary groups, are frequently committed by officials of the State security apparatus, and are occasionally committed by foreign mercenaries. The extreme left wing insurgent groups have also committed many assassinations in pursuit of their objectives, though such assassinations are usually clearly distinctive from those conducted pursuant to the campaign of State terror, both in modus operandi and the groups and individuals targeted (notwithstanding considerable overlap – particularly in remote and rural areas communities and social leaders are frequently targeted by both sets of protagonists-).

As the book by Sinaltrainal notes “foreign investors” are uniquely situated to benefit from the social and armed conflicts in Colombia if they are so inclined whilst facing minimal risk:

The structure of the oppressive apparatus of control anticipates violence against trade unions as a fundamental element of the consolidation of transnational financial power, denying the limits set by the human rights of the people, labour rights, and of course environmental rights. In accordance with this broader strategy and objective, these practices are implemented in Colombia as a generalized and systematic attack against the trade union movement executed by an organized structure of power that guarantees impunity for its highest levels.

The dynamics of oppression of the trade union movement take many forms. Based in the institutions of the State, they include official disparagement and the instigation of judicial processes against trade union activities, the individualization of work contracts, and in synthesis placing all the force of the law in favour of the interests of large corporations, most of which are owned by foreigners. The forms of oppression utilized extend to systematic persecution and violence perpetrated against the trade unions, such activities often being delegated to paramilitary armies to obscure the direct responsibility of the companies and of course of the State...

Such corporations no longer need territories occupied and administered by empires in the traditional sense; all they need is the submission of the economies policies and means of production of a country to international financial power. In other words, the violence against trade unions is a structural element that guarantees great benefits to the financial, industrial and commercial conglomerates, destroying everything and everyone that confronts their interests.

While it is true that in Colombia these strategies are implemented in the midst of an armed conflict they are not an integral part of the conflict as such, they do not obey the internal dynamics and tensions of the conflict. Rather, they respond to interests, generally transnational, which are uniquely situated to benefit from the conflict.

Most of the members of Sinaltrainal that have been assassinated were employees of either Nestlé or Coca Cola. The other members of Sinaltrainal employed by the two giants of the junk food industries have been subjected to particularly intensive official, corporate and extra-legal persecution and harassment in an attempt to destroy those branches of the trade union.
At the very least the two companies have done the absolute minimum they could get away with to denounce the assassinations and try to help protect the rights and lives of their employees affiliated with the trade union, and on several occasions evidence has emerged suggesting that the management of Nestlé and Coca Cola (with the connivance of officials of the US embassy in particular) have been actively involved in colluding with politicians and bureaucrats, military and intelligence officials and paramilitary groups to maximise the effect of the campaign of persecution and terror being waged against Sinaltrainal.

For instance as a result of the materials that were discovered during the “parapolítica” scandal, it has been ascertained that on 25 July 2005, less than two months before the assassination of Luciano Romero, a meeting was held between the Sub-Director of Operations of the DAS (the national intelligence agency) and the coordinator of the Special Intelligence Group G3 (an intelligence unit established to coordinate the campaign of State terror and persecution waged against opponents of the ruling classes). Amongst other assignments the officials ordered the initiation of intelligence offensives against Hollman Morris (an independent journalist) and the NGO Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (an association of lawyers that defends human rights) by infiltrating the security and cleaning companies contracted by the collective, and ordered the preparation of a ´presentation´ about “the Coca Cola/ Sinaltrainal case for officials of the US embassy”.

Despite the difficulties, there have been several substantial victories in the protracted campaign for truth, justice, integral reparation and guarantee of non-repetition. The material authors of the assassination of Luciano Romero (six members of the local paramilitary group) have been successfully prosecuted and sentenced for homicide, and the assassination was declared a crime against humanity in a sentence handed down on 31 March 2014 by the Criminal Court of Colombia.

In addition Judge José Nirio Sánchez, of the Second Penal Court of the Specialised Circuit of the O.I.T, ordered the opening of an investigation against six senior Cicolac-Nestlé executives based on evidence of their knowledge of and possibly active collusion in preparations for the assassination of Luciano Romero. However the national Prosecutor-General´s office has not made any effort to carry out such an investigation, and Judge Sánchez was subsequently suspended from his position without explanation. A set of hearings has also been conducted by the Permanent Peoples´ Tribunal, the members of the tribunal condemning the assassination as a crime against humanity and calling for judicial officials to fulfil their obligations by conducting a proper investigation of the case.

Following the preliminary successes the Colombian prosecutors and courts have refused to investigate the evidence of extensive links and collaboration between the paramilitary group, State intelligence, military and police officials, and the management of Nestlé´s subsidiary in Colombia. Having failed to obtain a comprehensive investigation in Colombia as to exactly what happened and the identification and punishment of the intellectual authors and beneficiaries of the crime, Sinaltrainal has been assisted by several NGOs in Europe (in particular Multiwatch, a Swiss coalition of civil society organisations, and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights) in order to raise awareness of what has happened and take the case to the courts of other countries (the United States of America and Switzerland) and international tribunals (the European Tribunal of Human Rights, and most recently the International Criminal Court) in an attempt to obtain justice.
The results of judicial proceedings in the other jurisdictions have been even more disappointing. The legal petition in the United States was suspended following a commitment by Nestlé to reach an agreement satisfactory to Luciano´s family and Sinaltrainal, however it immediately reneged on the commitment. Sinaltrainal and Luciano´s family then took the case to the tribunals of Switzerland (the location of the official headquarters of the parent company); the relevant State prosecutors accepted the file, and then failed to commence investigations until they could claim that the Swiss statute of limitations precluded any formal investigation.

The European Tribunal of Human Rights refused to consider whether the Swiss judicial system had fulfilled their obligations to conduct an impartial and comprehensive investigation without giving any reasons for their decision. The proceedings before the International Criminal Court are still under way; Luciano Romero´s assassination is one of five emblematic cases being presented in an attempt to obtain a finding of the commission of crimes against humanity in Colombia.

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