Almas courage: Colombian journalist risks everything to tell the truth

“Death threats are not new for us. It is a way of life here. Every family in Colombia has come to terms with violence. Everyone in Colombia knows of a relative who has been tortured, disappeared, or killed – treated in the most grotesque ways.”

Alma Rebelde* says these words rather matter-of-factly as she walks us off the set at a television studio in downtown Bogota. A horrendous, decades-old civil war in her country has become, for her, a simple fact of life. Yet there is a slight tremble in her voice. She is about to tell us why.

Alma has just finished hosting a television talk show in which I and three others from the United States – a truck driver from San Diego, a nurse from Atlanta, and a Dominican Christian minister from the Bronx – have been interviewed about our fact-finding visit to Colombia.

As guests of the Colombia’s food and beverage workers union, Sinaltrainal, our labor delegation had taken part in several days of public hearings on the role of transnational corporations and right-wing paramilitary death squads in terrorizing Colombia’s workers. We met with many trade unionists who have been the victims of this employer-instigated terror, especially those working for Coca-Cola and its related bottling companies.

SINALTRAINAL has lost 19 of its leaders to paramilitary assassinations over the past decade, eight of them at Coca-Cola plants. According to the United Confederation of Workers (CUT), the country’s largest union federation, over 3,800 trade union leaders and activists have been assassinated in Colombia since 1986, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world for unionists.

During the taping of the television show, Alma’s questions brought out our main points, including our observation that the paramilitaries work in league with Colombia’s armed forces to repress the workers. We noted that, with U.S. workers’ taxes being handed over to the military through Washington’s Plan Colombia – a program that has funneled more than $1.3 billion in mainly military assistance to the Colombian government – we are helping to finance the murder of our brother and sister trade unionists. We pledged to do our best to inform workers back home and to take action to stop all U.S. military aid to Colombia.

The show went well, and Alma and the production crew seem pleased. We ask for a copy of the videotape and while we are waiting our San Diego truck driver, Mike, asks her if the program will really be aired, given the political situation in Colombia today.

Our host says, “There is no question of that, it is guaranteed.”

She explains that her union, the Colombian Television Association (ACOTV) had fought for the right to have a half hour program each month under the total control of the union.

“This is a public station owned by the government and there is no other union contract in Colombia which gives the workers such a right to address the public,” she says. “It may be unique in the world. It took a struggle to win this right. We achieved it during a three-day strike.”

That victory was not without a price, Alma says.

“That strike upset the powers that be and we began getting threats from the paramilitary units right here in Bogota,” she says.

Alma again emphasizes how pervasive the right-wing paramilitary activities are, how almost every family is affected. I asked if she is perhaps exaggerating a bit, at least slightly. She replies, “You don’t believe me? Too bad, it’s the truth as I know it in my heart.”

She thinks for a moment, then faces us with a determined look and a lowered voice.

“Let me tell you the story of just one family, my own. Mine is not a special case. It is repeated over and over.

“My older sister, Gertrudiz – she was a beautiful woman. She and her husband, who was a veterinarian, were going out to a farm to cure some sick animals. His name was Fernando,” she says.

Both Gertrudiz and Fernando were known for their progressive views.

“They were on horseback when they were stopped by a paramilitary unit. Fernando was shot and killed. He received a single bullet right here in the middle of his forehead,” jabbing her finger at her own head.

“Gertrudiz was treated differently. She was violated, raped, and when she was killed, her body was cut up in chunks with a machete,” indicating again, “here, here, here, and here.” We have no way to know if Fernando had to witness the atrocity before his death.

“My brother, Enrique, was younger than Gertrudiz. He was assassinated in Ibague in Tolima.

“Three cousins, Felipe, Manuel, and Esteban were also killed. Felipe met death in Ibague also. Cousin Manuel was assassinated in Bolivar, near the Rio Cauca. They killed Esteban only two months ago in Casablanca, Tolima. A coincidence, yes, Casablanca – the White House,” she says.

“Esteban’s brother, Eduardo, is mayor of Casablanca. He was elected without the help of the two traditional ruling parties – the Liberals and the Conservatives. Eduardo is a leftist. He is mayor but he can no longer live in Casablanca. He became a military target of the paramilitary death squads and, to preserve his life, he is now one of the two and a half million Colombians who are displaced by violence.

“Only two weeks ago, the husband of my younger sister – he participated in Eduardo’s political campaign and was forced into hiding. His life was threatened and he has left for Spain,” she says.

“This current process of death has continued in my family for ten years. Our story is just one single example of what life and death is like for the people of Colombia. We have not even registered a denunciation of the last two assassinations with the government. Doing so would make it all the worse for the family.”

Alma remains stone still. We are stunned; there is not a sound from us. She breaks the silence.

“There is more to this story. It is the second part – no, really, it’s the first,” she says.

“I was born on a farm called Sebastopol where my brothers, sisters, father and mother lived. The place was called Sebastopol when my father bought it. In the 1920s and ’30s many people in Colombia gave their places, even their children Russian names. They admired what the Russian people had done when they threw off capitalism and the Czar. In those years the Russian revolution gave them hope that one day they, too, might end their oppression,” she says.

“In 1956, when I was ten years old, a piece of paper was pushed under the front door at Sebastopol in the night time. It said, ‘Get out, son of a whore!’ My father was a proud man. He believed in the people. He had faith in the future and spoke his mind. He refused to be chased out.

“The very next Sunday – yes, on a Sunday – another scrap of paper came under the door at night. It said, ‘You have two days to leave or face the consequences.’ Still my father didn’t leave. On the second day we heard gunshots – bam! bam! bam! bam!” Her head jerked, remembering each shot. “The shots continued. They killed the mule, the horses, the cow, the goats, the chickens and the dogs – even the two dogs,” she says.

“When my father heard the shooting he immediately gathered us together and rushed us into the dark night with nothing but what we were wearing. We were no further than a hundred meters away when we saw our house burst into flame.

“We traveled all night and well into the next day by foot over the mountains to finally arrive in Ibague where my father and mother decided to settle and, with nothing, build a new life some distance away from the ashes of Sebastopol,” Alma says.

“I tell you this only to show you that this dirty war did not come upon us yesterday. It’s not about drugs. It has been with us since the oil companies came here before 1916. Its images are etched in the living consciousness of all Colombians. One way or another, it is the same for us all and we don’t run away. We don’t cut and run.

“This is our beloved country, the home of our human heritage,” she says. “Our soils are rich with oil, coal, emeralds, gold, and the scars and the victories of our history. We built this country with our hands. The point of this century-old war is to drive us from our land so its bounty, explored or yet undiscovered, can be possessed by the grandmasters of wealth in our country and in your own. That’s what drives this dirty war.”

Bill asks if we, members of the delegation, are now in danger for doing the show.

Alma laughs a humorless chuckle, nods and says, “Not really.”

“When this program airs you’ll be safe at home in the warmth of your own families. Our audience is forty million people. The satellite will carry the signal to Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and even to your United States. And who do you think will be among those forty million viewers? Our vengeful paramilitaries and regular armed forces, and they won’t sit still about it,” she says.

“With the showing of just one program like this, I become a military target. It will inflame the vengeance of the paramilitaries. The corporations and the government have no need for censorship in Colombia. They control most of the media and what they don’t control, they intimidate. Even here we know we are spied upon. One program like this one, and I as host, for inviting you and allowing you to air your truth, become a marked person. When the paramilitaries mark you as a military target, they leave nothing to chance.”

Whether for her own protection or out of hospitality, Alma will not let us call taxis to leave the television studio. She insists that all six of us squeeze into her tiny 1975 Datsun and she takes us across Bogota to the SINALTRAINAL office. She says goodbye with a customary embrace and with tears of fear in her eyes – as I have in mine.

Not long ago I received an e-mail from a history professor at Brown University. He saw our program aired in Bogota and asked for more information. It was shown, and Alma Rebelde is surely in danger. How does she face it? Sheer courage and determination: virtues shared by many workers, peasants, and journalists in Colombia today.

In Barrancabermeja, a city under paramilitary control, perhaps the most dangerous and violent city in Colombia, the People’s Organization of Women which fights alongside SINALTRAINAL defending workers’ rights, has a slogan that says it all: “With your Life – Make Love to Fear!”



* Names of people and places in this factual report have been changed to lessen the danger for the real persons involved.

(see related story below)



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Court rules human rights case can proceed against Coca-Cola bottlers



In July of 2001 the Colombian union Sinaltrainal, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), and the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed suit in Miami against Coca-Cola Company and two of its Colombian bottlers. The suit alleges that Coke and its bottlers maintain open relations with paramilitary death squads to intimidate trade union members there.

In a March 31, 2003, ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez ruled that cases against the Coca-Cola bottlers Panamerican Beverages, Inc. and Bebidas y Alimentos in Colombia can go forward, a victory for the plaintiffs.

However, the court dismissed Coca-Cola Company and Coca-Cola Colombia from the case on the grounds that their bottling agreements did not explicitly give them control over their bottlers’ labor relations.

Terry Collingsworth of the ILRF indicated that this part of the decision would be appealed.

“We are absolutely convinced as a factual matter that one word from Coca-Cola would stop the campaign of terror against trade union leaders in the Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sinaltrainal is said to be preparing to call for a worldwide, year-long boycott of Coca-Cola products starting in July, on the anniversary of the murder of one of its leaders.



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