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Slaying of U.S. Labor Organizer Opens Old Wounds in El Salvador

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 2, 2004; Page A23

USULUTAN, El Salvador -- Gilberto Soto, a Teamsters organizer from Cliffside Park, N.J., was chatting outdoors on a cell phone during a visit to his childhood home here when three gunmen walked up and shot him in the back.

"Mama, they're killing me," Soto called out as he lay bleeding to death.

Joel Cabrera, 27, a nonunion truck driver in El Salvador, said he is paid $115 for trips that can take up to two weeks. (Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)

The Nov. 5 slaying of Soto, who was in El Salvador to investigate working conditions for nonunion truckers and to celebrate his 50th birthday, has caused an uproar among U.S. union leaders, who have complained to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Salvadoran President Elias Antonio Saca.

On Wednesday, senior U.S. union officials traveled to this provincial capital after meeting with authorities in San Salvador to protest the killing. Like Soto's family, they believe he was slain for organizing workers in a nation that human rights officials say has a long record of hostility to union labor.

"I can't see any other reason anyone would kill him," said Arely Soto de Chacon, 39, who ran outside when she heard the shots and found her dying brother, a father of three and popular figure in union circles who had emigrated to the United States in 1975 and become a U.S. citizen.

In a letter to Powell, James P. Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said Soto was killed by "what appears to be a death squad" and called the Salvadoran government's response to the crime "anemic."

The high-profile murder has drawn widespread comparisons to the killings in 1981 of two land reform advisers with the AFL-CIO in El Salvador. That crime, blamed on right-wing vigilantes, remains one of the most shocking incidents of a turbulent era in the region.

Soto's death has focused new attention on current labor conditions in El Salvador, as the U.S. Congress prepares to debate the Central American Free Trade Agreement. That pact, which would eliminate most tariffs on trade among the United States and five Central American nations, is strongly supported by President Bush but has been criticized by rights groups and Democrats for failing to adequately protect workers' rights.

Efforts throughout Central America to organize factory workers, drivers and farm laborers have consistently been thwarted by industries trying to keep wages down, according to union activists. The truckers Soto was scheduled to meet during his trip complained that they earn only about $100 for grueling trips that can often take two weeks.

Employers in the region have often been backed by governments desperate to attract foreign investment to their poor countries, which increasingly find themselves competing with nations such as China where workers are paid even less.

Debate over the trade pact in Congress, expected to begin early in 2005, will bring to the forefront the tensions between pro-business governments that want to create more jobs and rights groups demanding decent wages and working conditions. Seventy-two Republican and Democratic members of Congress recently signed a letter to Powell pressing for an investigation of Soto's killing.

Labor officials estimate that about 5 percent of El Salvador's 2.5 million workers are unionized, a sharp decline from about 15 percent when peace accords were signed in 1992 after a decade-long civil war between leftist guerrillas and the U.S.-backed government.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, and other analysts said the war years decimated Salvadoran trade unions and that pro-business officials who have controlled the government for the past 15 years have systematically crushed unions in an effort to attract foreign investment.

"They are trying to sell El Salvador as a union-free country; they see trade unions as an obstacle to investment," said Sergio Chavez, the Salvadoran representative for the New York-based National Labor Committee, which is trying to organize workers here.

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