Another Colombian union activist has been murdered.
Oscar López Triviño, an 25-year employee at the Nestle food processing plant in Bugalagrande and a member of SINALTRAINAL, the Colombian food workers union, was gunned down on November 9 after receiving a death threat from a group called Urabeños, described by the Wall Street Journal as “a violent drug-running and crime syndicate formed several years ago from disbanded right-wing paramilitary groups.”
SINALTRAINAL members had recently concluded a five-day hunger strike that called attention to the union’s campaign at the Nestle plant for union recognition and improved pay and working conditions.
Prior to the hunger strike, the union and the company had been in negotiations over a new collective bargaining contract but the talks had broken down.
Lopez was not one of the hunger strikers, but he was active in the union. Other SINALTRAINAL members and leaders at the Nestle plant also received death threats prior to Lopez’s assassination.
In 2011, the US and Colombia agreed to a Labor Action Plan (LAP) to protect workers’ right to join and freely participate in unions. The LAP was part of a Colombia-US trade agreement that became effective in 2012.
Despite the LAP, Colombia remains the most dangerous place in the world for a worker to a member of a trade union.
Lopez and the other SINALTRAINAL members on November 8 received text messages from Urabeños accusing them of being guerillas fighting to overthrow the government, a baseless charge often used by right wing death squads to justify murders of union members and social justice activists.
Urabeños is composed of the remnants of paramilitary death squads that operated in the area during the height of Colombia’s civil war.
The union said that Lopez is the 15th SINALTRAINAL member who worked at Nestle to be murdered since the union began organizing Nestle workers in the 1980s.
Perhaps the most infamous of these murders was the killing of Luciano Enrique Romero in 2005.
In 1999, Romero led the worker resistance to a restructuring plan at CICOLAC, a powdered milk processing plant in Valledupar owned by Nestle.
The effort failed and most of the workers at the plant lost their jobs. Some were able to return to their jobs, but they only had temporary contracts.
In 2001 Romero helped expose Nestle’s practice of importing and repackaging expired milk at its CICOLAC plant.
Romero was fired in 2002 and went into exile after receiving death threats.
He returned to Colombia in 2005 and was murdered shortly after his return.
In 2012, two members of a local paramilitary death squad were found guilty of his murder.
Judge José Nirio Sánchez who presided over the trial said after he read the verdict that it was impossible that the two acted alone and ordered the state prosecutor to investigate the leading managers at the Nestle-CICOLAC plant to determine if they had a role in Romero’s murder. The investigation is still ongoing.
The LAP signed by Colombia and the US was supposed to end abuses such as the killing of Romero and Lopez.
But a recent report by two members of the US Congress finds that murder and intimidation continue to be an integral part of Colombian labor relations.
Rep. James McGovern and Rep. George Miller traveled to Colombia to gather information for their report.
“At a minimum 413 threats were documented and 22 trade unionists were murdered for their union involvement in 2012,” reads the report. “On April 1, 2013, the 991st death threat against members of the labor movement was received since President Juan Manuel Santos became president in June 2011.”
After the death of Lopez, SINALTRAINAL urged action to bring the murders to justice and get the negotiations between the union and Nestle back on track.
“Tell the (US) Department of Labor to pressure the Colombian government to ensure justice for the murder of trade unionist Oscar Lopez and to take action to prevent violence against unionists in Colombia,” said the union in a written statement about Lopez’s murder.
Colombia’s Minister of Labor on November 11 convened a meeting of the union, Nestle’s management, and a representative of the government to find a way to restart the stalled negotiations and resolve the issues raised by the workers’ hunger strike.
“To the organizations that support us in Colombia and the rest of the world, we give a big hug of solidarity and ask that you be extremely vigilant with regards to the negotiations underway and that you continue to demand that brother Oscar Lopez’s murders be brought to justice,” said SINALTRAINAL in a statement.