As trade unionist attacks continue, Guatemala faces tough decisions

GUATEMALA CITY – At 8 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 7, the phone rang in Dora Regina Ruano’s house in Guatemala City. Her daughter ran to answer it, and a man on the other end told her that if her mother didn’t resign from her job, her entire family would be killed.

Ruano isn’t a politician, nor is she a wealthy businesswoman or high-court judge – she’s the secretary of Guatemala’s National Health Workers Union, or SNTSG. And she’s becoming increasingly accustomed to these types of calls.

“My first reaction was one of terror and uncertainty,” Ruano said. “I felt really agitated each time the phone rang and was worried for my children, their children and their partners.

“But I’m not going to resign or hide, because a true leader has to lead by example. I haven’t stopped going to work for a single day,” she added.

Death threats – and worse – are becoming a way of life for trade unionists in Guatemala. In the same week Ruano was threatened, three of her colleagues were attacked, leaving former SNTSG secretary Genaro Cruz Telón so badly wounded that he is now in a coma.

In the past five years, an estimated 58 trade unionists have been killed in Guatemala, but no one has been jailed for the crimes. Labor officials say the actual number is likely higher, and they warned that failure to improve the safety of union members in Guatemala could cause the country to lose its free trade agreements with Europe and the United States.

“The many assassinations of trade unionists make Guatemala the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist,” said Stephen Benedict, director of the Human and Trade Union Rights Department at the International Trade Union Confederation.

Dora Regina Ruano Guatemala

Dora Regina Ruano, far right, has received multiple death threats for her work with trade unions in Guatemala. She refuses to resign from her current position as secretary of SNTSG.

In the past year, several high-level international trade delegations have visited the Central American nation to urge President Otto Pérez Molina to take action on the crimes. However mission leaders say Pérez Molina’s administration has made little progress.

In September, the International Labor Organization returned to Guatemala to assess whether the situation had improved since its last visit in March.

“There are some signs of change, but it’s all going too slowly,” said Luc Cortebeeck, president of the ILO’s Workers’ Group. “The changes are the result of the influence of international actors, but the power of the landowners and capital-owners remains strong.”

Last week, Public Services International (PSI), a global trade union federation representing 20 million public-service workers, including those of SNTSG, appealed to Pérez Molina to speed up investigations into the 58 murdered unionists.

“We urge that you as president, and the authorities of the Prosecutor’s Office, the National Police, and the Interior Ministry order an immediate and thorough investigation into these cowardly acts, and use the full extent of the law so that those responsible are arrested and promptly tried,” PSI Secretary General Rosa Pavanelli said.

The Guatemalan government insists it is doing all it can to improve the situation in the country.

“In March of this year, we set up a trade union roundtable with the interior minister and all of the trade union leaders,” Guatemalan Labor Minister Carlos Contreras Solórzano said. “The aim is to develop preventive policies to avoid attacks against workers and trade-union leaders and to exchange information to fight the criminals and perpetrators.”

However, last week’s attacks would suggest that this approach is not working.

The ILO will decide at the end of October whether to send an inquiry commission to Guatemala, which is the agency’s highest investigative procedure and has only been used 11 times in the ILO’s 100-year history.

Said Cortebeeck: “For Guatemala, it could be very bad news for the trade agreements with the U.S. and Europe, and for the cooperation programs.” 

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