Colombia works to escape its past

The human toll of the anti-union violence can be felt in a small home at the end of a narrow street a few miles from Santo Domingo's highly touted urban transformation. Inside, the widow of a union man remembered for his gentle sense of humor recounts her husband's killing on their doorstep.

"I heard two sounds, like when you take the cork out of a wine bottle. Then I heard something fall," says Maria Durango, 64, weeping. "He didn't cry out. I went to the door, looked down and saw him on his back. When (our daughter) went to move him, a stream of blood came out of his head."

The victim, Factor Antonio Durango, 54, moved to the city in 1996 after paramilitaries in rural Uraba threatened to kill him for trying to organize workers on a banana plantation. He got a job selling lottery tickets on a street corner, part of a booming trade in Medellin, but one controlled by paramilitaries. In 2000, he organized the lottery ticket sellers into a new union. Soon, he was being followed and receiving threatening phone calls, which he told his wife came from the paramilitaries. These armed bands emerged in the 1990s to battle left-wing guerillas on behalf of powerful landowners, businesses and drug barons.

The government assigned Durango bodyguards in 2003, but withdrew them the following year, even though a gunman had shot him through the hand in the interim. Then, in August 2005, as he approached his front door, he was shot in the head and back.

His family bundled the bleeding man into a taxi and rushed him to a clinic. "He said, 'My head hurts a lot; don't let me die,' " recalls daughter Patricia, 26, a nurse's assistant. Durango lingered for two days before leaving three children and a widow, who scrapes by on monthly union payments of $75.

The family says authorities quickly closed the investigation into his killing without charging anyone. But three months ago, with Colombia under fire for not prosecuting more union killers, the government reopened the case.

Prosecuting unsolved cases

Though other government officials have suggested that many of the activists were killed for reasons unrelated to their organizing work, Prosecutor General Mario Iguaran — who assigned 13 attorneys and 77 investigators to probe roughly 200 unsolved union killings — says: "In most of the cases, the assassination took place because of their union activities."

To date, of the 2,539 recorded murders of union members, only 80 prosecutions have resulted, according to Jose Sanin, director general of the non-profit Escuela Nacional Sindical. "More than 2,000 haven't even had an investigation," he says.

Some union leaders say an end to violence and threats would do nothing to change their thinking on the trade deal. They link a broad climate of hostility toward organized labor to the free-market economic formula that Washington has promoted in Latin America for almost two decades. Starting in the early 1990s, a wave of privatizations swept several industries, spurring job cuts, reducing benefits and leaving unions with 4.8% of the labor force, vs. 14% two decades ago.

"Free trade is killing us as much as bullets are," says Gustavo Triana, an official with the country's largest labor federation, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia.

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