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.

At first, they tried to close their eyes to the problem, but after a while, they got used to having to talk about it. We also realized that to make schools a zone of peace, we would have to present some alternative to arms and drugs for young people. All over the state we got the government to build playing fields for sports, so young people would have something else to do. We built cultural centers.

The discussion about the violence became much broader than just the schools, to encompass the whole society. We told the women, “You're the mothers of the children who are killing other children. We have to talk about this.” We were able to stop the war in our schools for two consecutive years.


What is the situation in your school now?

We no longer have children carrying guns. Our school is a place to study and learn, for knowledge and investigation, not for conflict. Our parents now try to get the government to give us the resources we need.


Is the escalation of the war having an impact on Medellin?

This year the situation became very dangerous again because the paramilitaries entered our city. They took over a big section of Medellin, in zones where we had been working. It's much more difficult to have a dialogue with the paramilitaries. They're organized and financed by the army. It's a way for the government to intervene directly in our communities.

Some schools have had to close for two or three months at a time, because the fights between the gangs have become much sharper. Students who are displaced go to other schools, and our classrooms are too small to accept them all. In some schools, there are 60 to 65 students in a single classroom. The paramilitaries even stop public buses from entering those barrios, so the children no longer have a way of getting to school.


Have you been able to get the cooperation of the government in controlling the paramilitaries?

No. The conflict has gotten worse, and we haven't been able to get the paramilitaries to have the same kind of dialogue with us.


Is that because they look at teachers and unions as an enemy?

They accuse teachers of fighting against the government's education-reform law. When we try to organize parents to oppose it, they accuse us of being insurgents.

That stigma can result in being killed. We know the government itself is behind them.


How have teachers tried to assert their political rights given that level of repression, and how has the government responded?

In 1992 we participated in formulating Colombia's basic education law. Teachers wrote some of the articles which were incorporated into the constitution, and established that education was a responsibility of the state, the family and the whole of society.

The most important part of the law that we won was Section 60, which mandates a special budget for education consisting of 60 percent of the net national budget. In May 2001 the Interior Ministry, at the command of the International Monetary Fund, decided to break the back of the teachers' movement and reform the education law, getting rid of the special budget. They substituted a system in which education became the responsibility of the different states, without providing them any resources. Today we basically have no guarantee of funds for public education.

The reforms the government proposes are all coming from the International Monetary Fund. They want to privatize social services, making individuals responsible for their own education and health care, although people have no jobs and often not even enough money for food. The government wants to make it easier for foreign companies to exploit our natural resources and labor.


What is it like to be a trade-union leader in Colombia? We know that over 150 union leaders there are murdered every year.

Being a trade unionist is very dangerous in Colombia. We're called terrorists, because we fight for better conditions and for collective bargaining, and because we
oppose the restructuring of laws governing education, labor rights and so on. All these actions make us a military target.



Are you afraid?

Yes, because we are constantly threatened.


Who is making the threats and doing the killing?

A lot come from the large landowners and big-business owners who are trying to reduce salaries to increase their profits.

The paramilitaries attack trade unionists because we oppose the restructuring of the economy. We also run the risk of being silenced because we denounce the human-rights violations, and the armed actors responsible for them.


Do unions see a way out of the war?

The Unitary Confederation of Workers has proposed a number of steps toward peace. We want to include all the social movements in this process — workers, women, youth, community leaders and others. All should be able to express their needs, propose their own agendas, and point to what they think are the sources of the conflict. Our work is part of something larger, a broader search for peace.

We want the negotiations between the government and the guerrillas to begin again, and civil society needs to be included. We need a cease-fire. No other solution is possible except for negotiation.


The U.S. Congress voted $1.7 billion for the Colombian military two years ago, under Plan Colombia, supposedly to fight drugs. What do you think of this policy?

Plan Colombia is a time bomb. They fumigate the illegal crops, but they're ruining the land, and involving communities that have nothing to do with the drug war. The war has left a path of destruction, wreaking havoc in the areas of the oil pipelines, destroying many small towns. We need to build infrastructure in the country, reactivate our national economy and agriculture, and give people a way to make a living and stay on their land.

The money for the military is really going to support the arms trade, instead of supporting Colombians. Instead of investing in war, we need to invest in peace.

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