BOGOTÁ. The bulletproof Mitsubishi is moving slowly down the streets of Bogotá. It’s the morning rush, pretty muggy, and Miguel Morantes opens the car window on the passenger side.
But only about ten centimetres or so, safety precautions prevents him from rolling it down further.
His bodyguard Horacio is behind the wheel with a gun in a belt around his waist. Carlos, his other bodyguard, just put his seat belt on in the backseat. His third bodyguard is on a break. The bulletproof vests are in the trunk.
“I used to like driving. And going out in the weekend, going for walks. Sometimes I’ll go outside in the neighbourhood where I live, but it doesn’t happen very often,” Miguel Morantes says.
He’s the president of one of the largest trade union federations in Colombia, the CTC, and has been living and breathing union work for over 40 years. The last time he was attacked was in 2013, when unknown men shot at his car during a visit to the city of Cali. Miraculously, he got away unharmed.
“I used to never report the threats I received. But then I was almost murdered, and that’s why I have more personal security now.”
The car stops outside the CTC headquarters, a modest building down a back lane in central Bogotá.
There’s no parking so while Carlos follows him in, Horacio, the other bodyguard, stays in the car. He will remain there for many hours. Today, the only thing on Miguel Morantes’ schedule is wrapping up a two-day conference together with twenty regional trade union leaders.
Small paper cups with “tinto”, black coffee, are lined up on trays by the entrance. The conference participants are talking over each other, the bare room and its stone walls can’t absorb the buzz of the voices. Miguel Morantes walks up the stairs to his office, and leaves the delegates in the lobby.
Jorge González brings a small cup of coffee to his lips while holding a paper in his other hand. He looks shy but starts telling his story immediately. The paper in his hand is a police report.
The previous day he received a death threat through a message to his phone. At 9.43 a.m., someone decided to threaten his life with the words: “Fucking bastards, as these negotiations are commencing it seems like you don’t love your own family. We hope you die, die, die…”
“I couldn’t stay here at the meeting, I went back to my hotel and cried. I cried so much because I started thinking about my four children.”
24 hours later and he still hasn’t told his wife about the death threat.
“Sometimes I regret ever joining the union. It’s draining. Because everything that happens to me affects my family too.”
Back in his home town of Valledupar, he’s the leader of the mining union Sintradrummond and has been threatened more times than he can count. The feeling of resignation is immense.
Four years ago, the family felt forced to move because of the security risk. And one day in May 2014 could have been his last.
He grabs his phone again and scrolls back through his pictures.
“I was just about to park outside my office when my car was shot at. I managed to flee into the building.”
The pictures on his phone show bullet holes in the paint of the car.
“In this country there are no guarantees of safety for trade union members. Nothing has happened the times I’ve reported the threats to the police,” Jorge González sighs.
Ever since the trade union movement established itself in the country, the violence against its members has been constant. When 10,000 banana plant workers rallied for better conditions in 1928, 300 of them were shot dead by the army.
These days the threats come from other directions. From employers, workers, guerrilla soldiers, or paramilitary groups.
Colombia has been on the international trade union confederation Ituc’s black list for the last few years, and is considered one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to workers’ rights.
In this country there are no guarantees of safety for trade union members.
It’s often hard to map out murders on union members, but since 1973, at least 3,170 people have been killed, according to the organisation Escuela Nacional Sindical.
When the historic peace deal with the Farc guerilla was made in 2016, many people hoped for the agreement to echo and reduce the overall violence. But that’s not what happened. The murder rate of human rights defenders has actually increased.
The government will grant personal protection to the people most at risk. But many union leaders don’t have enough protection to feel safe, according to Jorge González.
At home in Valledupar, he shares his bodyguard with another person.
“One month I have protection, and the next month almost no protection at all,” he says, and smiles a little at the bizarre fact that his life has value one month at a time.
The latest death threat, the one he just showed us on his phone, came just days before he was going to start wage negotiations for 1,300 union members.
At the CTC headquarters, just over a third of the regional delegates say that they have received threats because of their union work. And it seems they all feel a need to talk about it.
The stories that are shared in the next few hours make it hard to understand how anyone would ever consider becoming a member of a Colombian trade union.
We hear from people like Marino Montaño from Norte del Valle, the leader of sugar trade union Riopaila.
While out on a bike ride in November of 2009, he was jumped by a man who put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger four times.
Marino Montaño shows with his fingers against his head where the man shot him. Unbelievably, like some kind of guardian angel passed by, the gun just said click, click. The shots didn’t go off.
“But life as I knew it ended there and then anyway. I have constant nightmares about being murdered and I’m scared. I have bodyguards to protect me but I don’t have a bullet proof car. And I have four phones I switch between to separate between work, unionism, and my private life,” he says.
Gladys Smith Jaimes has also been attending the meeting. She has been working for the banking giant BBVA and was one of the first people to get involved with the banking union ACEB.
Colombia has a culture that is anti-union and people don’t even bother to learn any real facts about the trade unions
But it was not looked upon kindly to be both the vice head of office and union member. She was bullied for ten years, and a victim of what she feels was psychological terror.
“The bank has systematically done everything in its power to stop me. I didn’t receive any wage development and they ordered my colleagues to shut me out. It affected my health and I went on sick leave because of it.”
Gladys Smith Jaimes was on sick leave for three years, and during this time the leadership of the bank insinuated that she was suicidal, she says.
“My employer constantly comes up with new ways to keep me from the office. When I was finally able to come back to work they gave me a broken computer. I complained to the human resource department but nothing happened. For a month I just sat there with the broken computer and couldn’t work.”
The coffee break is long over. The delegates are going through their finances and their positions on the situation in neighbouring Venezuela. The President, Miguel Morantes, is leading the meeting in a large conference room.
Jorge González has trouble sitting still and is pacing back and forth between the entrance hall and the conference room.
“I’m marked for life. If I left the union now it would be even worse. Then I wouldn’t get any protection and people would still see me as an activist.”
A man who is on his way out wearing a jacket with a CTC badge makes his own summary of how brutal trade union organising is in the country.
“There’s a gravestone on our faces. But we can’t hide, we have to show ourselves.”
Daring to show himself is also what Diógenes Orjuela is doing. Last year he became the President of the country’s largest trade union confederation, CUT. Despite the fact that it’s dusk outside, he walks fearlessly between his office and his home.
“I need to have a normal relationship with my family and to be able to move freely, but of course I also take precautions. I never drive late at night and I never show where I am on social media.
The walk home goes along narrow sidewalks where people are standing to have a bite to eat before jumping on one of the city’s overcrowded buses to make their way home.
Diógenes Orjuela used to be a member of one of the teachers’ unions, and received many threats. When he was elected as the President of CUT he applied for personal protection from the government, but is still, seven months later, waiting for an answer.
“I haven’t caused a big fuss over this because the fewer people who know that I don’t have bodyguards, the safer I am. But it’s very strange.”
He’s very critical of the country’s justice system.
“How is it possible that there have been over 2,000 complaints to the government during the last five years that show how employers have restricted trade union rights and not one of those cases has made it to court?”
Two days after the CTC conference, Miguel Morantes is sitting by his living room table and dipping a tea bag in hot water. It’s Sunday afternoon. In the bedroom down the hall, his wife is in bed, recovering from surgery.
“Colombia has a culture that is anti-union and people don’t even bother to learn any real facts about the trade unions, like what we stand for or what we achieve,” he says, all of a sudden.
The apartment is on the second floor of a middle class neighbourhood where the buildings have receptions with security guards and cameras. Souvenirs are crowding the walls and the bookshelf of the living room.
Miguel Morantes has traveled a lot during his years in the union, and has hosted guests from all around the world, which can be seen in everything from keychains to porcelain figurines and paintings.
In the weekends, after a long work week, he mostly stays home. Even though his neighbourhood has many parks and restaurants, he almost never leaves his house because of the security risk. The balcony is large and lovely, but doesn’t get used very frequently.
Only a fraction of all workers in Colombia, not even 4 percent, are members of a union. This is partially because at least half of all jobs are informal.
Another reason is that the trade unions are seen as way too leftist, and among ordinary people the general idea is that the unions are corrupt, just like many of the country’s politicians have turned out to be.
“People are wrong. Of course there are examples of corruption among the trade unions, as well as everywhere else. But what’s worse is the government who, through the years, have more or less openly supported the anti-union culture.”
82-year-old Miguel Morantes has no problem letting the conversation slip into history instead of throwing around campaign slogans. Next to the sofa is a history book he just finished reading and recommends.
He states frankly that regardless of which party is controlling the government, the unions are not doing great. The current right-wing government, led by President Ivan Duque since 2018, has promised to support the unions, which Miguel Morantes “will believe when I see it”.
“The stigmatisation makes the rate of unionisation decrease steadily while employers scare any workers who show even the least bit of interest in a union.”
Next year is the last of Miguel Morantes term of office. He should have retired long ago but when the prior President died in a heart attack in 2009, he was elected to take over.
He will fight for what he loves until his last breath.
The afternoon is turning into evening and the sun is going down. Early tomorrow morning, the bodyguards will show up, and a new work week will begin.
Translation: Cecilia Studer
22 million Colombians are considered part of the work force, of which 4 percent are unionised. The country reached its highest level of unionisation in 1977, with 17 percent of the labour force.
CTC, Colombia’s oldest trade union organisation, was founded in 1925 and has 175,000 members.
CUT was founded in 1986, after a merger of two other trade union confederations. CUT has around 600,000 members.
The security office of the state department, UNP, grants personal protection to politicians and human rights defenders. The budget for 2019 is just over 200 million euros.
In 2018, at least 34 people were killed because of their trade union work.
Sources: UNP, CTC, CUT, ENS