By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Photo by David Bacon
NOWHERE IN THE WORLD IS THE LIFE OF A UNION LEADER MORE dangerous than in Colombia. Last year, hit men murdered 159 leaders of trade unions; in 2000, 129. Since 1986, 3,800 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia, said Hector Fajardo, general secretary of the Unitary Confederation of Workers. Last year, Colombians accounted for three of five trade unionists killed in the world.
Being a teacher and a union activist is among the most dangerous combinations of all. From 1986 to 2001, 418 educators were murdered in Colombia.
Paramilitary death squads are blamed for more than 85 percent of these deaths, but the Colombian military provides arms and support in a covert "dirty war," according to Human Rights Watch.
The government targets teachers because they led the opposition to drastic budget cuts that threaten the very existence of the country's educational system.
Ligia Inez Alzate Arias is the principal of Presbyterio Camilo Torres Restrepo Elementary School in Medellin, where teachers have organized to get guns out of the classroom and to begin teaching a culture of peace. She is a leader of the teachers' union and of the workers' confederation.
On Sunday, Colombians elected Medellin's former mayor, Alvaro Uribe, president. While Arias and her co-workers are desperately trying to find a road to peace and negotiations, they expect the worst, since Uribe has long-standing ties to the paramilitaries, and is already calling for an all-out war.
She spoke with L.A. Weekly freelance journalist David Bacon in San Francisco.
L.A. WEEKLY:Teachers are such targets in Colombia -- what made you want to become one?
LIGIA ARIAS: I was born in Medellin, and started as a teacher in 1975, at a time when the labor movement was still very strong and people believed passionately in social change. We wanted to improve the educational system.
I started teaching in a rural town 16 hours outside of Medellin, where we were actually building the school. At the time, the army was looking for guerrillas who belonged to the National Liberation Army [ELN]. That August, the army bombed the school because they said the guerrillas were meeting there on Sundays, and we were allowing it. The government recalled me, saying it was too dangerous to work under those conditions.
After 25 years, those conditions don't seem to have changed a great deal. How do Colombian teachers cope with having to provide an education in the middle of a war?
We had to invent a way of teaching that applies to this situation, and try to ensure that our students receive an education in the middle of this conflict.
Students in our school belong to gangs formed by different social groups -- the guerrillas, the right-wing paramilitaries, criminal gangs and the organizations of drug traffickers. They all take guns into the schools, and soon they're firing at each other at the school gates. Many young people have been killed.
So in our school we started a project called Living Together, and made our school a zone of peace. That means that everyone who comes in has to leave their guns behind, and learn how to live with other people. At the beginning it was very difficult, because we had to speak with the actual organizers of the gangs.
Adults are responsible for giving guns to the children. They even train them in how to use them. Drug dealers, for instance, give them guns to carry out functions in their organization. But they didn't expect them to bring them to school. So we began saying that we wouldn't accept the presence of weapons in the school.
How many children were killed in your first year at the school?
Just at the school, two, but in the area around the school, many more. The whole reason for carrying the guns was to use them. In the early 1990s, even teachers themselves were being killed by students who weren't allowed to graduate.
Were the children afraid of what would happen to them if they began leaving their guns at home or outside of school?
They were very afraid. First, they were afraid just to admit that they were carrying guns. They were also afraid about what would happen outside. One boy told us he had a gun he was supposed to use at night, to kill people pointed out by the drug dealers. After confessing what he was doing, he was found assassinated in a nearby barrio. That first year was very difficult, because no one wanted to talk. Investigating in the barrio, we discovered that organizations of drug dealers, of guerrillas, of common criminals were all involved. Paramilitaries, too.
How did the adults who were responsible react to this?
They felt that this was none of the schools' business, that it was their problem. Given the seriousness of the situation, we organized big forums in the community, called Agreeing To Live Together, and tried to talk with the adults who were training the children. But then the situation became even more serious, the students were killing each other.
We had meetings about living together, about non-aggression, with the heads of the different organizations. They would come to these meetings with hoods over their heads, so their identity would be hidden.
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