Violence against Trade Unionists: Continued Crimes from the Internal Conflict in Guatemala

Death threats on the telephone followed by an attack by armed gunmen and the murder of another trade unionist in Guatemala. This scene is reminiscent of Guatemala City in the seventies and eighties during the peak of the internal conflict.

Unfortunately, this occurred earlier this year to Carlos Hernández and he is one of 58 murders of trade unionists in the last five years.

It is sometimes difficult to figure out whether the news stories we read are decades old, or days old.

The lines between the past and present become more blurred with disappearances of trade unionists. With no body to be buried, enforced disappearances are ongoing crimes that transcend the life of the victim, and the length of a conflict.

Edgar Fernando García, a student and trade unionist, was shot in the leg and kidnapped by police officers in 1984. He was never seen again. While two low-ranking officers were jailed in 2010, following prosecution by García’s lawyer daughter, last week saw the conviction of former national police chief, Hector Bol de la Cruz. Bol de la Cruz and former police officer, Jorge Gomez, were each sentenced to 40 years.

These isolated victories may seem small considering the death or disappearance of over 200,000 during Guatemala’s internal conflict. However one need only speak to the victims’ families to realise the great importance of these battles to overcome impunity. Following the conviction, García’s wife, Nineth Montenegro de García, one of the founders of GAM (Mutual Support Group) said that ‘at the end of the day, justice has been done’.

With positive steps forward, though, we can also see negative steps back.

The continued persecution of social activism, evident in the continued violence against trade unionists and concurrent impunity for the perpetrators, appears to be getting worse. According to the Trade Union Confederation (TUC), Guatemala is ‘the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist’.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina described this as ‘shameful’ in a meeting with international trade union federation, Public Services International (PSI). Why, then, is more not being done by the Guatemalan authorities to tackle these focused crimes?

Why are investigations hampered and why has there been a delay of nearly three decades to prosecute those involved in García’s disappearance? Impunity clearly reigns.

The international community must not relent in putting pressure on the Guatemalan authorities to investigate these crimes, old and new, and to make real efforts to ensure the protection of workers’ rights. The TUC has written a letter, calling on President Molina to take real action on these issues. Please joins in writing to President Molina.

Georgia Booth


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