Monday, May 21, 2012

Car Bomb Explodes in Bogotá as Trade Accord Begins

By Austin Robles, WFP Colombia

When I left the United States to do human rights work in Colombia, I knew the risks of entering the country with the world’s longest ongoing guerrilla war . But on May 15th, as I was walking through the capital, I felt insecure for the first time when I saw television news reports that a car bomb had gone off two miles from my apartment, killing at least 2 and injuring 39.

Though I lived in Honduras in 2010, the year in which it became the world’s most violent country, I never felt that my life was in danger. In Colombia, however, the first car bomb in the capital in nearly a decade rattled me and showed me how exposed civilians are as a result of the armed conflict.

As I thought about my role supporting human rights processes in Colombia later that afternoon, I received a bulletin a partner organization released that day reporting targeted attacks against human rights activists in the first three months of 2012. In just 91 days, there were 64 attacks against human rights defenders, including 13 murders, 29 death threats, 1 disappearance, 17 attacks, 3 arbitrary arrests, and 1 case of sexual violence.

Reading this news in light of the bombing, it became all too clear that the insecurity I felt in the last few hours was a burden that social justice activists must bear daily. My mind also turned to the other major event of the day: the launch of the free trade agreement between the USA and Colombia.

The FTA stalled for six years before its passage due to concerns of Colombia’s abysmal human and labor rights record. It has been the most dangerous country for those defending workers’ rights for decades. According to Garry Leech, almost 75% of the world’s union leaders killed in the last 20 years were Colombian, and less than 5% of these killings resulted in a conviction.

The situation is complicated by Colombia’s internal conflict, which often draws multinational corporations into its fold. Ohio-based Chiquita Brands International Inc. plead guilty in 2007 to paying $1.7 million to terrorist paramilitary groups over eight years.  Chiquita is currently facing another lawsuit brought by thousands of family members of those killed by paramilitaries aided by Chiquita’s material support.

Similarly, Alabama-based Drummond Ltd., a coal mining business, is on trial for allegedly paying paramilitaries $1.5 million to murder union leaders in 2001. Ex-paramilitaries have testified that Drummond paid the terrorist group $100,000 monthly, and nearly 600 murders were ordered between 1995 and 2005.

Even when multinationals are not involved in the conflict, labor regulations are too lax and Colombian institutions too weak to provide substantive protections for workers. According to a labor rights association composed of Drummond workers, there have been 6,445 work-related accidents, resulting in 22 deaths, in Drummond’s 16 years operating in the country.

Health rights remain one of the most challenging issues. Michigan-based General Motors fired over 160 of its workers after they were disabled or contracted sicknesses on the job, but the company refused to recognize the injuries as work-related and assumed no financial responsibility.  These workers are no longer physically able to perform manual labor, and they and their families have no economic security. These were only some of the concerns of Members of Congress as they deliberated the FTA.

Authorities are still investigating whether the start of the FTA and the car bomb are related, and the FBI and Scotland Yard are reportedly assisting Colombian efforts.  Regardless of whether the link is proven or not, there can be no doubt that the FTA and political violence in Colombia are intertwined. Instead of leading to greater prosperity for all, the FTA will increase violations of workers’ rights in the country that already holds the world’s worst labor rights record, and will further human rights defenders’ feeling of insecurity that I have only just begun to experience.


  1. I am amazed at how little importance the article gives to the regular civilians that have to live in this city running the risk of getting killed (Unlike the writer, they have no choice but to stay there) and to the fact that the first suspicion on that terrorist attack has been placed mainly on the so-called FARC. The writer seems to have information that no one else has about who committed it and of why this awful act was perpetrated. From his words one may conculde that the Union leaders are upset about the starting of the FTA and therefore placed the bomb. If it is so, please say it because, FTA or not, civilian lives ought to be protected.

    1. Anonymous:

      Thanks for reading the WFP blog and my post. The point I wanted to make in this post was that Colombian civilians are at risk. As I wrote in the second paragraph, the bombing “showed me how exposed civilians are as a result of the armed conflict.” The rest of the post focuses on how civilian workers have been subject to human rights abuses by American companies and how the FTA will likely worsen the situation. I am sorry if that didn’t come across explicitly.

      You suggested that I insinuated that labor unions were responsible for the bombing, and let me be perfectly clear: I did not intend to make any such suggestion because I do not believe that to be the case. I am unaware of anyone else making such a claim either. Unions are engaged in non-violent movements for social justice.

      No group has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing, and until the investigation concludes, it would be difficult to say with certainty who carried out the bombing. The Colombian press and the government have suggested the FARC are behind it because a former government official was targeted.

    2. To anonymous--I think your point is very well-made that human rights defenders who come from out of the country are able to leave. However, the author didn't say anything in his article about human rights defenders/social justice activists who come from out of country--that was an insinuation that you made. When he mentioned the bulletin about "64 attacks against human rights defenders" and the "burden that social justice activists must bear daily", he didn't specify whether those people were from Colombia or not. Those terms can just as easily refer to the people who are doing the work in-country that are from there.

  2. this comes off incredibly pompous and self-centered, written by and for the protection of "human rights defenders", as if ordinary Colombians dont have to endure the same "burden" this Peacer experienced. When "well-intentionality" goes wrong , I suppose. The beauty of it is that the author seems to tell on himself: his stereotypes he felt prior to venturing out to Colombia (influenced by media bombardment of a select preconceived [and well-maintained] portrayal of Colombia) were confirmed through this incident. This is the most disturbing part of social justice activist's (much like the white man's) burden: claiming solidarity with a displaced/marginalized people foreign to their own culture, yet quickly pointing our "we (activists) should be protected more!" at the first sign of fire or road bump they experience while on said mission.