Guatemala: 68 Union Leaders Murdered before a Single Arrest

Español On Saturday, Guatemala’s Ministry of Justice announced the capture of three individuals responsible for the murder of trade unionist Carlos Hernández. Hernández was secretary of culture on the executive committee of the National Union of Health Workers, and one of many in the long list of trade unionists murdered each year in Guatemala.

President of Guatemala Otto Perez Molina, with Carlos Contreras Minister of Labor
President of Guatemala Otto Perez Molina, with Carlos Contreras (left) Minister of Labor. Source: RENAP.

The murder or disappearance of workers and trade union leaders in large numbers as a method of intimidation is ordinary in countries like Guatemala. Beyond the criminal act itself, it is the impunity that has become the most sensitive topic for the government, and particularly for President Otto Pérez Molina’s administration.

Since 2007, a total of 68 trade union leaders and representatives have been murdered, and a high number of attempted murders, kidnappings, break-ins, and death threats have been reported, along with torture. Yet, before the capture of these three individuals, not one culprit had been brought to justice.

The many years of unaccounted murders have “created a culture of fear and violence where the exercise of trade union rights becomes impossible,” according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

In other countries, trade unionists fight for labor rights and equality, but in Guatemala, this fight has cost many of them their jobs and even their lives. The ITUC describes Guatemala as “one of the worst places to be a worker, with no guarantee of rights.” High levels of violence means the country’s trade union membership barely reaches 1.6 percent of the active population.

“It is very shameful for us that our country is the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists today,” acknowledged President Pérez Molina in August 2013. Nonetheless, the problem has continued to get worse. In 2014, the Global Rights Index, released by the ITUC in late May, ranked 139 countries, based on 97 indicators to evaluate each country’s labor rights. Guatemala was at the top of the list of worst countries to work in.

Minister of Labor Carlos Contreras immediately dismissed the ITUC report, and argued that the results were not well founded and biased. According to Contreras, the report is merely an attack against Guatemala, just in time before the International Labor Organization’s annual meeting.

“We believe that this is a strategy to discredit Guatemala,” he said, “just two weeks before the ILO annual conference starts, where we will present the country’s achievements.”

Furthermore, in the 2013 ITUC Report on Violations of Trade Union Rights, Guatemala was one of the seven countries at risk for trade unionists and trade union rights, along with Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Burma, Fiji, Georgia, and Bahrain.

“Despite international legal instruments that protect and promote freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, unions and their members are still exposed to severe violations of their rights. Unions are increasingly under attack, fighting to maintain the ability to effectively promote and defend the interests of workers,” the report states.

Apparently, the problem goes beyond state negligence, and involves government intimidation as well. On Friday, May 30, the National Front for the Cause (FNL) — a Guatemalan trade union — released a statement condemning the recent threats received by one of their leaders, Ángel Ochoa. Ochoa was at his home on Friday, when the police suddenly broke in with no search warrant, and began to search his residence.

“We are certain this is no mistake… It’s clearly an act of intimidation,” the letter states. “It’s outrageous how state security forces, instead of providing protection to honest citizens, they are dedicated to spread fear and panic in the homes of hardworking individuals, whose only crime is to organize and look after their rights.”

Guatemala’s Labor Violations: Under The Microscope

The abuses committed against trade unionists have not gone unnoticed. Both the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the US Department of Commerce and Labor are keeping an eye on Guatemala over its lack of compliance on labor rights. The main complaint is that the country does not comply with its international agreements on trade union freedom, and does not protect the rights of workers to organize.

International organizations such as Amnesty International and Going to Work have on several occasions denounced the abuses against Guatemalan unionists and the state’s negligence on the matter. Banana trade unions have been the most heavily affected industry as a result of the escalated violence, according to Going to Work. Large-scale anti-union plantations of the South Pacific coast — now responsible for over 80 percent of exports —  remain a place where local banana workers cannot organize. If they do, just as they tried back in 2008, they face harassment, threats, and potentially death.

A delegation of Public Services International meets with representatives of Guatemala's trade union National Front for the Cause
A delegation of Public Services International (PSI) meets with representatives of Guatemala’s trade union National Front for the Cause. Source: Comunicarte.

According to Public Services International (PSI), a global trade union federation, Pérez Molina’s administration must take action and address the problem. Otherwise, its lucrative trade agreements with the European Union will be at risk.

In a letter addressed to President Otto Pérez Molina, the international organization states “we believe the shocking violations of human rights and international labour conventions in Guatemala provide grounds for suspension of the European Union Central American Association Agreement (EU-CAAA), particularly in regard to the EU’s General System of Preferences. We are taking his claim to the EU Members of Parliament at this moment.”

The Guatemalan Ministry of Labor claims the government has put forward roundtable negotiations between trade unionists and government officials. However, the attempt to reach an agreement on policies to prevent further attacks against trade unionists and exchange information towards the capture of those responsible for the murders has failed to achieve significant changes.

Rosa Pavanelli, leader of the global union federation Public Services International,  explains the main factor missing in these efforts: “We have to underline the total absence of the rule of law, which means that in a power relation the worker always loses. The state fails to provide protection and support to its citizens and as a result is an accomplice of the crimes that are committed every day. The denial of justice is a crime against humanity.”

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