Unionists' Murders Cloud Prospects for Colombia Trade Pact
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
SANTA MARTA, Colombia -- Zully Codina was a mother, veteran hospital worker and union activist. The last role was the one that cost Codina her life at the hands of paramilitary death squads, whose records show they collaborated with the country's intelligence service to liquidate her and other union activists.
Codina was killed on Nov. 11, 2003, when a gunman pumped three bullets into her head moments after she kissed her family goodbye and walked out of her Santa Marta home. Her murder remains unsolved, as do those of the vast majority of the 400 union members killed since President Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002.
"For me, her death has been irreparable," said Rafael Sanchez, Codina's husband.
Recent disclosures about the purported role of the Colombian intelligence service, the Administrative Security Department, or DAS, in the murder of Codina and several other union leaders has ignited a political firestorm here that is reaching Capitol Hill just as the Bush administration is fighting for congressional approval of a free-trade pact with Colombia, the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid.
Some U.S. lawmakers have already voiced concerns. "You cannot put together a free-trade agreement when there isn't freedom for workers in terms of their basic international rights," said Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade.
The Uribe administration's efforts have been hurt by the February arrest of the DAS's former chief, Jorge Noguera, who was charged with working with paramilitary members as they infiltrated the political establishment and silenced adversaries along the Caribbean coast. The illegal militias, organized a generation ago to fight Marxist rebels, have morphed into a Mafia-style organization dedicated to drug trafficking and extortion.
A clandestine paramilitary operative named to DAS by Noguera said in a recent interview that the intelligence service compiled lists of union members, along with details about their security, and handed them over to a coalition of paramilitary groups known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
"This list went to Jorge Noguera, and he made sure it reached the Self-Defense Forces," said the operative, Rafael Garcia, now in jail and working with prosecutors. "The DAS knows the movements of union members."
Noguera coordinated Uribe's run for the presidency in coastal Magdalena state in 2002 and was rewarded with the top job at DAS when Uribe won the election. As the scandal enveloped the agency, Uribe vigorously defended Noguera, calling him "an uncontaminated man and good person" and then naming him consul in Milan, Italy, when the allegations surfaced.
Uribe now says he did not know about Noguera's paramilitary ties. "When he left the DAS, there were no charges of ties with paramilitarism," Uribe told reporters last month, standing next to President Bush during his visit to Bogota.
Uribe's government is the Bush administration's closest ally in Latin America and has received billions in U.S. aid to curtail violence. But in the midst of intense lobbying in Washington for a trade pact, Uribe has been buffeted by a widening scandal that has linked two dozen current and former congressmen, most of them the president's allies, with paramilitary groups.
"I think the trade pact is in jeopardy," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who recently met with union leaders in Colombia. "With each passing day, it goes higher and higher. It goes to military leaders, the head of the secret police and prominent politicians. I don't know how far this leads, but it's too close for comfort."