Labor & Workforce

“Long night of horror” ends for Colombian trade union movement

Laia Mataix Gómez

Bogotá, Sept 14 (EFE).- In a symbolic act, the Colombian government on Thursday recognized the trade union movement as a recepient of collective reparation after more than three decades of persecution and stigmatization.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro, in front of trade unionists from all over the country, announced the creation of a high-level commission that will include ministers and workers’ delegates to draw up a plan that will lead to truth, reparation and non repetition.


Between 1971 and 2023, the trade union movement in Colombia suffered 15,810 violations of life, liberty and integrity: 3,323 trade unionists were murdered, 449 survived murder attempts, 254 were victims of forced disappearance, 7,884 received death threats and 1,987 were displaced.

According to the Ministry of Labor, 63% of the cases of trade unionists murdered in the world during this period occurred in Colombia.

Rafael was assassinated in front of his wife and children at his home in Barrancabermeja in 2002. Guillermo Ochoa was murdered in 1988 in Medellín after years of persecution by the state. Pedro disappeared in Bogotá in 1993. All were union members.

These are three of the 3,323 stories of trade unionists murdered in Colombia between 1971 and 2023, told by their wives and daughters in the symbolic act that took place on Thursday.

Colombian society’s general perception of trade unions tends to be negative. During the armed conflict, trade unionism was associated with guerrilla warfare, and there was persecution by state and non-state actors of leaders who fought for workers’ rights.

“We are a small trade union movement in a country with an economically active population of more than 22 million workers, of whom only 5% are unionized,” Percy Oyola, president of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), told EFE.

Oyola hopes that with the political changes in the country, the union’s “long night of horrors” will come to an end, referring to one of the verses of the Colombian anthem.

THREE OF 3,323

Candelaria Vergara, mother of three children, tells with conviction the story of her partner Pedro Movilla, who “disappeared” in Bogotá on May 13, 1993.

The union leader and Communist Party politician was abducted after dropping his daughter off at school and was never heard from again.

“We have been looking for him for more than 30 years, with the support of groups and organizations, and we have persistently managed to reach the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,” said Candelaria, who wears a beaded pendant of Pedro’s face around her neck.

She told EFE that last year they obtained a ruling that condemned the state and held it responsible for the disappearance.

Rafael’s wife, Yolanda Corzo, accompanied by a painting of her husband, celebrates that his case has progressed and that the perpetrators have been sentenced, but she recalls that “the owners of a company were the ones who ordered his death” and they are still unpunished.

“There are more than 500 trade union organizations that have suffered the scourge of the terrible conflict in Colombia, and we continue to hope for just reparations, even if it is late,” adds Yolanda, who finds it difficult to keep her voice from breaking when she recounts her husband’s struggle in Barrancabermeja, where he belonged to the Oil Workers’ Union (USO).

Juliana, daughter of Guillermo Ochoa, explains that although her father, a teacher and union member of the Association of Institute Teachers of Antioquia (Adida), was assassinated in 1988, when she was 6 years old, he had been persecuted for years since 1973, and they have evidence that the state secret service had him under surveillance.

Her father’s case was filed in 2018.

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