by ANNCOL Monday, Jul. 22, 2002 at 11:38 PM

A campaign of terror and intimidation has been launched against the Colombian SINTRAELECOL trade union representing workers in the electricity industry. Recently seven leading members of the union were assassinated.

(By Alfredo Castro, ANNCOL Bogotá) In recent months attacks against the Colombian trade union representing workers in the electricity sector, SINTRAELECOL, have increased dramatically. Already this month the union’s headquarters in Bogotá have been attacked and four regional activists who were travelling together in a car were stopped and kidnapped by a paramilitary death squad. In the past four months the death squads have also assassinated seven leading members of the union.

The upsurge in attacks against SINTRAELECOL are believed to be linked to recent demonstrations in northern Colombia that brought tens of thousands of poor Colombians out into the streets in protest against the regional electricity company.

The protest erupted when regional power company Electicaribe cut off energy supplies to entire neighbourhoods of poor people claiming that residents and local authorities in much of the region are too poor to pay their electricity bills and that they should not therefore have to provide them with power. In certain areas the company has refused to provide electricity to local municipal drinking water plants and this policy has left some 2 million poor people in northern Colombia without a source of clean drinking water.

In response to the new company policy tens of thousands of people have held protests all over the coastal region with the demonstrations concentrated in the departments of Atlantico and Bolivar but also spreading into neighbouring regions of Cordoba, Sucre and Magdalena. The central government has given their blessing to the Electicaribe’s stance and has sent troops and police in against the protesters, leading to a number of deaths.

SINTRAELECOL has paid a leading role in these protests denouncing the fact that whilst millions of dollars in profits are made by Electicaribe, thousands of poor families are left without electricity and water as they cannot afford to pay the constantly increasing prices charged by the Spanish-owned utility. And it is partly as a result of these denunciations that SINTRAELECOL has been targeted.

The most recent attack against the union came on July 8th in the Colombian capital Bogotá when paramilitaries, who were able to enter and leave the area easily despite a heavy police presence, opened fire on the headquarters of SINTRAELECOL in the centre of the city. Specifically the paramilitaries appeared to be trying to kill Rodrigo Acevedo, the national human rights director of the union, who was sitting near a window. Miraculously, however, Acevedo escaped unharmed.

The week before, on July 4th, a paramilitary attack occurred with far more severe consequences. On that date four SINTRAELECOL union activists who worked together in Barranquilla, and had been active participants in the recent protests in that city, were travelling by car together in the municipality of Fundacion in Magdalena department.

According to witnesses the car was stopped by a paramilitary death squad who then proceeded to drag the four away. Alberto Herrera, Pedro Barrios, Eleazar Becerra and Salvador Vasquez have not been seen since and it is feared that the paramilitaries may have already killed them.

Sadly SINTRAELECOL has, in just the past four months, already lost some of their best leaders and activists to paramilitary assassinations. Below are listed the most recent:

- June 29th Manuel Antonio Fuertes Arevalo, the ex-vice president of his local branch of the union was assassinated when paramilitary gunmen came to his house in the Tuquerres municipality of Nariño department and shot him seven times in front of his family.
- June 4th At midday Eduardo Vasquez Jimenez was walking through the main market in the city of Santa Marta in Magdalena department when a group of paramilitaries approached him and shot him three times in the head. Those responsible left without the several police officers patrolling the market intervening suggesting possible police complicity in this crime. Vasquez was the treasurer of the Magdalena branch of the union.
- June 1st Jairo Ramos was killed by paramilitaries in the municipality of Tuquerres in the department of Narino. Witnesses report that the killers included several soldiers in their ranks.
- June 1st Adalberto Tukamoto Palomino, a member of the Meta region executive committee of the union was assassinated in the city of Villavicencio in Meta department. Her brother Alvaro Rafael Tukamoto, and best friend, Claribeth Urrea Mendez, were also murdered during the attack by a paramilitary death squad that was later seen entering a local army base.
- April 12th Jose Robeiro Pineda an ex-member of the national executive of the union was assassinated by paramilitaries as he ate dinner in a restaurant in the municipality of Aranzazu in the department of Caldas. His dinner companion, Hernando Jesus Ortiz, also a trade unionist (in the teachers union FECODE) and a senior regional human rights activist, was also shot and killed.
- March 20th Luis Omar Castillo and Juan Bautista Cevallos were stopped by paramilitaries on the road leaving the Rio Bobo Electricity Generating Plant where they worked in the department of Narino. Both were summarily executed at the side of the road.

Meanwhile, in a separate attack on the union movement on July 9th, Jorge Amiro Genecco Martinez was dragged into a van by presumed paramilitaries as he left the Smaritan Hospital in the Colombian capital Bogotá. Genecco, who has not been seen since, worked at the hospital and was the organiser there for the ANTHOC trade union representing workers in the health sector – another union that has lost many members to the paramilitaries.

In total 15 trade unionists have been taken away by paramilitaries so far this year and nine of these have not been heard from or seen since. This is in addition to the 105 union activists that the death squads have assassinated in Colombia so far during 2002.