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MARTHA DIAZ was walking to work at 5.30am in Bucaramanga, north-east Colombia, on August 15 2006 when a car pulled up next to her.
What happened next is etched in her memory forever. With all her experience of death threats as a trade union and political organiser since her youth, she was not prepared for what followed.
“They showed me a picture of my daughter Tania and they said they had her. They tricked me into getting into the car. They beat me, blindfolded me and took me to an abandoned place. They showed me photographs of my colleagues so that I would denounce them as guerillas. They said they had photos of me talking to guerillas.”
Diaz was in Britain last week as a guest of Unison, which is supporting the Justice for Colombia solidarity campaign in support of the struggle for peace, social justice and an end to violence against union activists in Colombia.
“One of them started laughing on the mobile phone, saying that they had just killed my daughter,” Diaz recalls. “I went crazy — I tried to scratch him and hit him — then they shot me twice and left me for dead.”
Some peasants found Martha near a farm and helped her get to hospital. “The peasants said it was a miracle I was alive. The place they found me was where the paramilitaries were dumping bodies every day.”
Two years after this horrific experience she narrowly escaped a second kidnapping attempt.
Then in 2010, her youngest daughter was also seized. She was sexually harassed and tortured psychologically, driven around an abandoned lot and taunted that her mother was a guerilla and an enemy of the state. Her kidnappers released her after four hours.
“As president of my union, I have lost count of the number of death threats I have received. There are 53 cases lodged in my name with the attorney general’s office.”
When Diaz was kidnapped, she managed to memorise the number plate of her attackers’ car. It was later identified as belonging to the wife of a serving army officer, who later became a general. However, no charges have ever been brought against him or anyone else in any of the cases relating to her. According to Diaz, “The investigator said the discovery of the number plate didn’t implicate him because it belonged to his wife.”
Death threats from the paramilitaries come in the form of notes and letters, or wreaths announcing the target’s death. On one occasion Diaz found two dolls chopped in pieces and covered in red paint with the names of her two daughters pinned to their heads.
With the kidnapping and attempted murder, kidnapping of her daughter and the countless death threats she and her daughters have received it would be no surprise if Diaz had decided to cease her political activities. But she has stood her ground. “No,” she says, “I never felt I would run away. I received a lot of support from the people around me. There is a strong support system within the union and from the human rights organisations. We always support each other. My daughters might cry and suffer but they support me and they are engaged in this process.”
The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights ordered the Colombian state to provide Diaz and her daughters with protection measures. The state has provided her with a bullet-proof jeep and bodyguards — although she can’t pick her own trusted people. In the case of her daughters, the state still hasn’t complied with the order.
iaz works in the Bucaramanga mayor’s office where she helped launch a union in the 1990s. As a teenager she was inspired by a communist teacher to join the Colombian Communist Party and later to become a member of the Patriotic Union — a left-wing political party that was effectively destroyed in a political genocide against its members and candidates in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
She went on to become a union activist, helping found the ASTDEMP union of which she is now president. “It took us four years to create the union in Santander, because the Ministry of Labour would not recognise it. We achieved this in 1998.”
The union organised in 22 municipalities in the department of Santander, leading resistance to mass sackings and denouncing corruption and collusion with the paramilitaries.
Such activities have inevitably made Diaz and other union activists the target of both the municipal employers and right-wing terror groups who have infiltrated local municipalities and regional institutions.
“In the case of my union we have always had to protect ourselves. In 2007, the whole executive was fired along with 300 other members.”
The executive members only got their jobs back a year later when a tribunal ruled that the sackings were illegal and ordered their reinstatement.
“As a union we saw the phenomenon of paramilitary infiltration was growing stronger. Local authorities were contracting out services to paramilitaries in exchange for votes — by forcing peasants to vote for certain candidates at the point of a gun.
“We made it official policy to monitor the budget to check that it wasn’t misspent by paramilitaries, to denounce corruption and expose it. We managed to get some of the mayors imprisoned with the help of independent prosecutors, and we won tribunals for members who had lost their jobs.”
“As a result we were accused of being guerillas, suffered death threats and the assassinations of our members. Our members are in danger because we have been declared military targets by various paramilitary groups such as the Black Eagles and others.”
The practice of denouncing union and social movement activists as guerillas is a longstanding strategy to intimidate and silence opposition to the government in Colombia.
Despite an official demobilisation of the AUC paramilitary group in 2005, the same forces have reorganised under different names. However, the government refers to these groups as “criminal gangs” — a deceptive description that obscures the fact that state collusion with the paramilitaries continues.
In one notorious case among many, a member of Diaz’s union, Carlos Arsinegas, denounced the strong alliance between the mayor, paramilitaries and the companies producing African palm oil in Puerto Wilches municipality. “He got a lot of publicity for this and the paramilitaries targeted him, so he had to get out.” Because of the high profile of the case, the police were forced to help him relocate. He was displaced for two years, but in the absence of legislation to protect workers who have been displaced, he had no material support.
“We don’t have the resources to help them,” explains Diaz. “So he returned. He was found dead, tortured, his nails and eyes out, burnt alive.”
The media has often portrayed the violence in Colombia as a thing of the past, but this is very far from the truth. Last year 78 human rights defenders and 27 trade unionists were killed, according to Justice for Colombia. As ever, the slaughter of democrats in Colombia does not break the mainstream media narrative that the country is progressing.
Diaz is also an executive member of the Patriotic March, a new mass movement in Colombia that is fighting for peace, social justice and a new progressive constitution for the country. “We are a social and political movement including unions, organisations of the left, peasant organisations, well-known personalities in the peace process and survivors of the Patriotic Union genocide.”
Colombia’s right-wing President Santos has just been re-elected, in part thanks to left-wing voters who wanted to ensure the continuation of the two-year-old peace process still underway in Havana between the government and the Farc guerilla movement. Santos’s right-wing opponent Oscar Ivan Zuluaga wanted an end to the talks, but was defeated in a second round of voting.
“Eventually we want to take part in the political process,” says Diaz of the Patriotic March’s future trajectory. Some of the movement’s key demands are for a constituent assembly, for the mass participation of civil society organisations in the peace process and ultimately for a “second definitive independence for Colombia.”
Last year the movement mobilised one million people on the streets of the country and led the biggest wave of industrial action seen in Colombia for 20 years, during which 19 activists were murdered.
It is planning mass demonstrations in August in support of peace, social justice and electoral reform. The movement already has many martyrs, including over 50 activists killed and hundreds imprisoned. “We defend and support the peace process but for us it is much more than the demobilisation of Farc,” says Diaz. “All that money that goes into war must be invested in society.”
As one delegate at a packed session of the Unison conference last week said in the presence of Diaz on the platform, “She doesn’t want our pity, she wants our solidarity. As trade unionists we owe it to our comrades in Colombia to give it to them.”
Diaz was visibly moved by the show of solidarity, returning home strengthened by the knowledge that Colombians are not alone in their long struggle for peace and justice.
Additional research and translation by Mariela Kohon. For more information visit www.justiceforcolombia.org
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