Colombia visit: The mothers of Soacha touched our hearts

Mothers of Soacha
Mothers of Soacha

#uNDC16 As Conference approaches the international debates today, Scottish convener Lilian Macer reports on a recent delegation to Colombia.

As part of the 2015 UNISON Delegation to Colombia, regions were invited to join the delegation which was supported by Justice for Colombia.

I was extremely privileged to represent Scotland on the delegation which took place from 28 November to 5 December.

This delegation was expected to build from the 2010 delegation, to identify areas of common interest, receive updates on the UNISON projects and to hear testimonies from our Colombian sisters and brothers of their daily challenges.

As a delegation we visited Bogota and took an internal flight to spending 2 days in Cali and the surrounding area.

Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrilla group are in detailed discussions on the most difficult question facing their three-year-old peace negotiations: how can Colombia hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes, without imposing penalties so severe that they encourage guerrilla leaders to keep fighting?

False positives
While in the country the delegation met with a large number of trade unions, lawyers and human rights defenders, elected members, NGOs and social movements, families of the victims of trade union oppression and the Mothers Soacha from the false positive scandal.

There were many concerns raised by the people we met, social inequality, poverty, murder of trade union activist and human rights campaigners being amongst some on the issues.
One visit in particular was the visit to Soacha, a poor suburb in southern Bogota.

The ‘false positives’ or extrajudicial executions scandal broke in Colombia in 2008 after it was discovered that the Army had been offering young men from the neighbourhood false employment, murdering them and then claiming that they were guerrillas killed in combat – in order to qualify for the financial bonuses and promotions offered for high ‘body count’.

We met four mothers and a sister of the young men that were murdered. We were invited into their home and they told us of their struggle to secure justice from their government.

Their powerful testimony had a profound impact on the delegation, they have been threatened and intimidated as a result of their campaign to have the soldiers responsible brought to justice.

This is the most serious military human rights crime of the past ten years: the “false positives” scandal, which continues to move slowly through Colombia’s courts.

One of the mothers, Idali Garcia, has seen two of her sons murdered, her youngest by the soldiers and his older brother because of their campaign to seek justice for his murder; she now helps to bring up his two small children.

Besides this they are being forced to move the bodies of their sons from the local cemetery because they can’t afford fees of maintaining the burial plots.

They live in poverty and despite the threats continue their brave fight for justice.

It was quickly established that there had been very little positive change from the 2010 delegation in relation to the inhumane treatment of trade union activists, Colombia continues be one of the most dangerous places to be a trade union activist.

Our meetings generated common theme of the continuing violence and abuses against trade unions, social movements, and civil society organisations still exist.

Despite being close to an historic peace agreement, the need for the international community to engage to ensure the widest participation from the social movement is urgently required.

This was a very difficult experience, I had not imagined the level corruption, injustice and poverty the Colombian people suffered which was met with resilience from strong brave sisters and brothers who are inspirational.

I would encourage branches to affiliate to Justice for Colombia and to continue to support the struggle for social justice in Colombia with its remarkable people.

Additionally as a health worker I would be keen to see UNISON engage in a project with ANTHOC the national trade union representing health workers. This could extend to the medical treatment of our sisters and brothers affected by the injustice within a corrupt environment within the prison system.

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