Guatemala is beginning to emerge from a grim history of military dictatorship and civil strife, but its workers remain mired in the nation’s bloody legacy. Even today, as the country hobbles toward democracy and seeks justice for past atrocities, trade unionists are still a target of violence, with many killings hidden under a cloud of government impunity.
In 2011 and 2012, there were a string of murders of members of the banana workers union, SITRABI. Overall, 64 trade unionists have been murdered in Guatemala since 2007 and hundreds have been systematically terrorized. And the vast majority of such crimes are never prosecuted, let alone punished. Activists believe that unionists are targetedbecause they represent workers’ interests, which puts them this puts them at odds with powerful corporate and state institutions.
Following negotiations with the International Labour Organization and International Trade Union Confederation, the Guatemalan government reached an agreement earlier this year to cooperate with ILO monitors to address anti-union violence and strengthen labor protections. But the bloodshed has not let up.
In a new report, Public Services International, a global labor federation representing public-sector workers, recounts vicious attacks on fellow unionists:
In March 2013, three members of PSI affiliate unions were murdered just days after an ILO mission visited Guatemala to assess the situation of freedom of association. On March 8, 2013, Carlos Hernandez, executive member of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Salud de Guatemala (SNTSG) and leader in several peasant organizations, was shot dead by two men carrying 9mm firearms on motorcycles. Santa Alvarado, also a member of the SNTSG, was kidnapped on March 21 after finishing work in the kitchens at the national hospital in Totonicapán. She was later found strangled. Kira Zulueta Enriquez Mena, General Secretary of the Sindicato de Trabajadores Municipales de Nueva Concepción in the department of Escuintla, was assassinated on March 22 at the library where she worked.
While the culprits may be hidden, unionists say these are not singular incidents of criminality. Labor advocates see the killings as a byproduct of deep government corruption linked to both drug trafficking and the business world. The unions’ position as workers’ representatives, they say, makes them a threat to corrupt enterprises and officials, leaving them exposed to killings by hired criminals.
Speaking to In These Times through an interpreter, Luis Antonio Alpirez Guzmán, secretary of dispute resolution with the health worker’ union SNTSG, which has reported several members assassinated in recent years, says local activists believe government officials “are not ordering the assassinations, but they are not doing anything to avoid them. And they are not taking proper action to investigate these assassinations. Therefore the government is considered an accomplice.”
Local and international labor groups are some of the few civil society voices mobilizing todemand action amidst the official silence. Last week, an international delegation of labor activists traveled to Guatemala to demand full investigations of recent murders of trade unionists and pressure the Guatemalan government to prosecute the crimes. The delegation was coordinated by PSI and included representatives from affiliate unions in Europe, Latin America and the United States. PSI General Secretary Rosa Pavanelli says via email that a “historical anti-union feeling” is “present in some sectors of the government as well. As such, a climate of impunity and fear exists.”
The PSI delegation has called on Guatemala’s wealthy trade partners to suspend commercial ties in response to the human rights crisis. In particular, they want European governments to suspend a key program that facilitates trade between the two regions, the European Union Central American Association Agreement (EU-CAAA), which gives trade preferences to Guatemalan businesses.