This blog post is part II in a continuing series of posts about my recent trip to Colombia. For Part I, scroll back in the blog to April, 2014.
My first stop was Bogotá, which would serve as a base for the rest of the trip. In Bogotá I met the staff and attorneys from the Solidarity Center, who were instrumental in setting up my subsequent interviews.
The second day in Bogotá I met with a number of leaders of the petroleum workers union at their headquarters. Metal detectors and armed government agents guard the entrance of the building, which also houses the largest trade union confederation in the country. Nearly all of the leaders I met with had received death threats for their organizing, and many had been forced to leave the region they were from, only to live under a constant threat of being assassinated in Bogotá. One union leader had recently returned from exile in Canada where he had spent the last ten years after members of his family were murdered.
Perhaps most shocking about these stories was the fact that the government appeared to be directly implicated in the threats. One leader, Hector Sanchez, explained how days after filing a complaint with local authorities concerning the first threats he received, an investigator from the government contacted him requesting that he provide information concerning the addresses of all his family members. Without fully understanding why this was necessary, he reluctantly provided the details. Within days, each of those family members received threats at the addresses he had provided.
Campo Elias Ortiz was another worker who had received threats yet persisted to organize with the union. He explained how employment was so precarious, and dangerous, that he believed it would never change without the power of a union to force the company to do the right thing. He added that he felt a responsibility to stand up in the face of such threats and fear, because as a younger worker, he did not have the same family obligations that some of his comrades had spoke about.
Both Hector Sanchez and Campo Elias Ortiz were planning to testify against Pacific Rubiales in a criminal case in December of 2013, a few months after my visit to Colombia. The Solidarity Center was helping them with their case and their testimony was to be instrumental in establishing a direct link between local authorities, the company, and the para-military groups executing the threats and violence in the region. I later learned that just days before their testimony, they were arrested by local authorities on specious charges relating to their involvement in a strike that took place in 2011. They were held for months in prison before finally being released just recently – due in part to international pressure from allies.
Campo Elías Ortíz, Rudolfo Vecino Acevedo (President of the Union), and Frederico Pulicio, stand together with Héctor Sánchez.Both Campo Elías Ortíz and Héctor Sánchez were arrested shortly after my interview and remain in jail with their lives in jeopardy.