Violence against Trade Unionists: continued crimes from Guatemala's civil war

Death threats on the telephone, followed by an attack by armed gunmen and the murder of another trade unionist in Guatemala. A scene that could have come straight from Guatemala City in the 70s or 80s, during the peak of the Guatemalan civil war.

But it's not an 80s murder. This happened earlier this year to Carlos Hernández. He is one of 58 murders of trade unionists in the last five years.

It is sometimes difficult to figure out whether the news stories we read are decades old, or days old.

The lines between the past and present become more blurred with disappearances of trade unionists. With no body to be buried, enforced disappearances cause unending agony and grief for the victims' families.

Edgar Fernando García, a student and trade unionist, was shot in the leg and kidnapped by police officers in 1984. He was never seen again. While two low-ranking officers were jailed in 2010, following prosecution by García’s lawyer daughter, last week saw the conviction of former national police chief, Hector Bol de la Cruz, sentenced to 40 years.

These isolated victories may seem small considering over 200,000 died or disappeared during the civil war. However you need only speak to the victims’ families to realise the great importance of these battles to them. Following the conviction, García’s wife, Nineth Montenegro de García, one of the founders of GAM (Mutual Support Group) said that 'at the end of the day, justice has been done'

With each positive step forward, though, there are steps back.

The continued persecution trade unionists and other activists is getting worse. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, Guatemala is ‘the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist'
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina described this as ‘shameful’ in a meeting with the international trade union federation, Public Services International. Why, then, is more not being done by the Guatemalan authorities to tackle these focused crimes?

Why are investigations hampered and why has there been a delay of nearly three decades to prosecute those involved in García’s disappearance? Impunity clearly reigns.

We must keep up the pressure on the Guatemalan authorities to investigate these crimes, old and new, and to make real efforts to protect workers’ rights.

Georgia Booth is our Country Coordinator for Guatemala.

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