Privatization by Bombing in Colombia

May 20, 2003

Iraq isn't the only place where bombing is a means to the end of privatization. While the Bush regime was killing Iraqi protesters in Fallujah and handing Iraq's wealth out to its friends in Bechtel and Halliburton, the Colombian establishment was testing out the privatization-by-bombing strategy in Cali.

The municipal worker's union in Cali, SINTRAEMCALI, has long been a combative, militant, and popular union. From the early 1990s, SINTRAEMCALI has taken a stand for accessible public services and against privatization and corruption. It has struggled, unafraid and undeterred by threats and murders against its members, using direct action tactics like occupying the municipal offices in downtown Cali.

(see Alex Lopez, 'Colombia's Public Services')

In this way, the workers fought off repeated attempts to privatize the city's municipal services corporation, EMCALI. The last major battle was in December 2001, but negotiations started again very recently-this time, it is the national government that wants to liquidate EMCALI.

On May 1, when another Colombian unionist, Juan de Jesus Gomez of the National Farm Industry Union, SINTRAINAGRO, was assassinated, the workers of SINTRAEMCALI were followed and harrassed at the May Day demonstrations in Cali by Police Intelligence services.

Then on the morning of May 8, the union's executive met with the Superintendent of Public Services. Four hours later, Nelson Lopez, Wilmer Vergara, and Jorge Vasquez, three unionists from SINTRAEMCALI, were killed by a bomb at the Puerto Mallarino Drinking Water Treatment Plant. When two union leaders went to a sewage treatment plant the same day, they witnessed the plant's guards being fired upon from a van. The national police showed up next-to tell the guards to evacuate the guard house, lest the same thing happen to them as happened at Puerto Mallarino.

Like most assassinations of unionists in Colombia, this one was forewarned well in advance. Quoting from SINTRAEMCALI's press release: "It is important to point out that after previous visits to the plants SINTRAEMCALI has demanded through the media on several occasions that the municipal and national authorities strengthen security at the Puerto Mallarino plant. The plant adjoins the Cauca River, and patrols of armed men in unmarked vehicles with tinted windows had been seen patrolling there several times. The ex-commander of the Metropolitan Police Eliodoro Alfonso can verify this. A year ago he publicly committed to the Mayor and the citizenry of Cali to increase security at the plant."

On May 10, SINTRAEMCALI marched to protest the assassinations. In the evening, the executive met to prepare for their May 12 meeting with President Alvaro Uribe Velez, where they would argue against privatization. At the end of the meeting, one of the leaders, Carlos Ocampo, driving home with his family, was followed by two cars. The union is supposed to have a constant connection to the Interior Ministry, which is supposed to respond to human rights abuses. Ocampo called the union's human rights network by cellular phone from the car. The union tried to reach the Interior Ministry-and got no response. The next morning, the municipal police harrassed SINTRAEMCALI workers on the job. The military police raided the offices of an EMCALI telecommunications plant. The union's press officer was investigating these incidents that same day-when he found himself being followed.

And yet, all the repression against SINTRAEMCALI seems to have failed in its objective. In their negotiations with the government, the unionists again won an agreement preventing the privatization and liquidation of EMCALI, reported in El Tiempo on May 16.

Another attempt at privatization by violence is happening in Colombia's state oil company, ECOPETROL. As with Cali's municipal services, the main obstacle to privatization is the worker's union, in this case the Union Sindical Obrera (USO). And as in Cali, the strategy for beating the union is violence.

On May 5, in Cali, Marlon Mina Gambi, a university student and son of oil worker's unionist Yesid Mina of USO, was disappeared. On May 6, another member of the union got an email message: "The measures taken by the Central Block of the United Self-Defense of Colombia (AUC) are: We declare all USO union leaders and the children of USO members to be military targets. We have already started our actions against the worker's children… Carlos Castano, Political Chief."

In USO's words, "labour conflicts are treated militarily. This is shown by the situation in the Barrancabermeja oil refinery where 2,000 USO members work, and which is permanently patrolled by 1,500 agents of the armed forces, ready to repress and stop any exercise of the right to strike."

Will the repression work? USO is inviting internationals to Colombia, starting with a meeting on May 28-29 in Bogota and accompaniment of USO activists to a public hearing on June 17.

The search for a 'spectacular incident' to justify a wider Andean intervention continues, as do the ongoing atrocities of Colombia's (para) military, with the attacks on SINTRAEMCALI and USO just part of a panorama that, in the first weeks of May alone, saw assassinations in Tolima and attacks and assassinations against peasants in Arauca that forced hundreds to flee and take refuge in a church.

USO is not the only Colombian group inviting international intervention, and the kind that the President of Colombia wants doesn't consist of international activists. US troops are already operating on Colombian soil, and in January President Uribe asked for a US military intervention. On May 13, Uribe asked the European Union for military aid.

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