Unionists Targeted in Cali
On April 14, shortly after my arrival in Cali, I sat on bench under a large tree on a picturesque university campus with Gabriel, a member of the University Workers Union of Colombia (Sintraunicol). We were discussing the future while waiting for a lift home when a colleague of Gabriel informed us of the shooting of Raul Perea Zuñiga. As it happens, the 13 bullets that perforated his body actually had his brother’s name on them. But the bullets, being the undiscriminating characters that they are, killed him anyway. He was 38-years-old. His older brother Edgar Perea, who was wounded in the attack, is a vice-president of Sintramental Yumbo, the metal workers union in Yumbo, Colombia.
The following day, 41-year-old Carlos Alberto Chicaiza was also shot dead in Cali. He was a member of the board of directors of the Workers Union for Various Services (Sintraemsirva). He had served as president, vice-president and publicity secretary during his 16 years with the municipal services company and was a staunch opponent of the government’s attempts to privatize it.
On April 17, after eating breakfast, I was on my way to the union offices to use the Internet when I encountered streets gridlocked by huge municipal cleaning vehicles crammed with uniformed workers participating in a large demonstration. As I neared the union office, I began to notice that many of the trucks had bouquets of flowers attached to them. Inside the building there were more flowers and a small crowd toward the back of a function room. I moved closer and observed as a man filled with desperation shouted into an open wooden box in the center of the crowd. The box contained the corpse of Raul Perea Zuñiga.
I sat down, partly stupefied by not having realized until that moment what was going on, and shocked by the proximity of a gruesome reality normally a few comforting steps removed. After sitting awhile, I left the building and went next door to watch the procession from the balcony. There must have been 100 trucks and buses full of mourners stretching as far as the eye could see. They were all adorned with flowers and blowing their horns as they passed. The nearby streets were chaos and police on motorbikes zipped up and down with the futile motion of a fly at a window. It was moving to see such a potent demonstration of solidarity from workers for a fellow employee. It was also deeply disconcerting that this sad state of affairs continues to go unnoticed throughout the world. As the casket was carried out into the street, the crowd shouted in a tone not so much mournful as defiant: “Why, why, why do they assassinate us? We are the hope of Latin America!”
After the last bus had joined the end of the procession to the cemetery, I took a taxi to a discreet location in an industrial section of the city to attend a celebration for the 20th anniversary of the Central Trade Union Federation of Colombia (CUT). The ceremony was held outdoors and consisted of a mix of powerful emotive speeches calling people to action, more subdued talks relaying information, films about the situation of public services and human rights abuses against workers, and two immense cauldrons of stew, rice, beer, music and dancing. It was inspirational to see people coming together in spite of it all and carrying on in this way. The atmosphere was serious and hilarious, solemn and joyful, contrasts that seem to typify this country.