Saturday, December 20, 2008

Chained inside an armoured vehicle

Involved with direct action in the UK I am use to seeing security guards as obstacles and potential problems. I spent yesterday with a group of secuirty guards who spend their lives tranporting large quantities amounts of money around in armoured vehicles, dangerous work in Colombia. If they transported people around, solidarity would be more complicated.

A year ago Eyder and Carlos decided to join Sintrabrinks, the national union that organises workers Brinks de Colombia, an affiliate of Brinks Ltd, a global security company. Eyder joined after he was repeatedly refused permission to attend a court case. If he didn’t attend he would be arrested, if he attended he would be sacked. Employees’ work 13 out of every 14 days and sometimes they are denied this day off. Their working day varies from 12 – 15hours. Family time is a fleeting glimpse of a child sleeping, a wife tired but waiting up. Life is lived inside an armoured vehicle.

This vehicle becomes their home. Constantly refused permission to leave the vehicle to go to the toilet, a plastic bag becomes their bathroom. There is no flush, ventilation or door between the other two colleagues. The smell of urine and dirty money fills the vehicle where they sometimes must eat their lunch. Trying to maintain some dignity, they avoid drinking fluids. Dehydration follows.

Brinks de Colombia has a policy of switching routes, driver, security and money handler every day to reduce surveillance and the likelihood of a robbery. When Carlos and Eyder affiliated to Sintrabrinks, they were put together every day for the next three months on the same route. The risk of a union is a greater threat than being robbed for the Multinational.

On the 22nd April 2007 they were attacked by a group of men. Eyder told me how Carlos reacted bravely, doing his job to protect the company’s money, and prevented the loss of any money. However he was shot in the neck and lost movement in his arms and his legs. He has since regained some movement in his arms but is completely paralysed from the waist down. He received $240 in compensation from the company.

More recently, three employees Uberle Pungo, Eduar Vivas and Robinson Tamayo were suddenly sacked. Pungo was thinking about affiliating. Vivas and Tamayo had both just affiliated to Sintrabrinks. They told me how they were offered $5000 each if they withdrew their affiliation. They refused.

Most of Brink’s employees are ex-soldiers. In the army unionist means communist which means guerilla, the enemy. In Brinks a little more than a year ago, union was a dirty forbidden word. When Carlos and Eyder unionised and began to talk with their colleague’s, people stopped sitting with them in the cafeteria and were unreceptive. Today´s protest shows views have shifted - in the small windows of every vehicle that came in and out of the compound, we received smiling faces and thumbs up. “They now recognise that what we are demanding is fair and just. The company only cares about its economic wellbeing while our wellbeing is ignored” Eyder tells me.

Last Saturday Eyder was given a letter, telling his that he was not to return to work due to his ‘emotional state’. They will continue to pay him. Eyder is clear that this is an illegal political act. They are trying to isolate him.

Brinks reported that between 2005 and 2007 “overseas revenue grew by 38%, due largely to rapid growth in Latin America … driven by increased demand, lower service costs and increased margins”

Brinks is not worried about losing Eyder´s labour in the short term. They are worried about his gentle but clear words which have the power and wisdom to effect their profit margins. Their long-term aim is apparent; destroy any union activity.

“I don’t join the union as I see how they persecute you”.

The small union branch know that the workers support them but there is much fear. Eyder describes to me what he has found through joining the union. Despite the incessant descrimination, he feels calm. The anger and frustration at the total control his job has over his life is now channeled in to his organising work. He confided in me, when alone, that even though they don’t talk about it he knows that both Brinks and the Government have links with ‘dangerous people’ and that what he and the others are doing is risky. Yet he feels happier than he has for many years. He is not keeping his head down. He is demanding respect and decent working conditions for him and his colleagues.

Living with dignity. Worth much more than the risks.


If you get bored of Christmas merrities and would like to send a letter to Brinks that would be very appreciated by the guys I met yesterday. They repeatedly thanked me for listening to them and offering to write about what I learnt.

For the moment they are fighting for the:
Reinstation of sacked workers and compensation for loss of earnings.
Respect for all employees’ rights to free association.

You can send emails to:

Please bcc in espaciobristol at in so we can pass news on to them.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dignity of Women - a women's space

In August 2004 the Colombia army detained Raquel in Saravena, Arauca. In November 2006 she and Samuel were convicted of “rebellion”, a common strategy by the Colombian government against those who insist on contining to educate, organise and mobilise communities to defend their rights to life and territory against the big oil sponsored militrisation of their lands. Another response is to murder them. In the same 2004 military operation three trade unionists were shot at point blank range by the Colombian army.

In August 2007 she was released but is unable to live in Arauca. “They [the state] wouldn’t let me return. They would get rid of me again if I dared” she tells me. Yet last Tuesday we are on a bus together travelling to Saravena for the First Assembly of AMAR (Organisation ‘Awakening of Women in Arauca’) As the event unfolds I see what drives Raquel to return .
Raquel was an outspoken and active member of the Teachers Union of Arauca for the twenty years before her arrest. It is as a passionate educator that her contribution to this assembly is really important to the growth of this young organisation (just 2 years old – very young in Colombian terms).

She tells me that in the assembly there is a session for exchange of experiences and wants me to speak. I ask S~ what she sees as the difficulties to participation in AMAR. Answer: choices controlled by jealous (or insecure?) husbands; societal pressure to be a ‘good’ wife and ‘good’ mother (so stay at home to cook, clean and bring up the kids), a cycle of women being told they have nothing to contribute outside of the kitchen, never learning new skills and thus reinforcing the myth that they are of no use; those who do break the cycle have their contributions criticised and undervalued. Constant battles with self-esteem

For many women just getting permission to attend the assembly is a big deal. A tactic used is to be very attentive to their husbands in the run up so they can get a pass out. Tellingly, the women who live this reality do not tell me this. A two-day event, with underconfident women is very little (compared to two-days with confident trade unionists) for building trust across differences.

I decide to share with them my community’s response to me being sexually harassed in Bristol. I had worries about doing this but decided to continue, and to also share the worries. I hoped they would contribute to building a space of truth and respect.

I worry that what happened to me is so small that you will think why all the fuss. It is certain that far worse things happen to women in England and Colombia. But this does not cancel out the reaction that I had nor how it affected my daily life.”

I shared with them details of the harassment, how low level fear affected my and how it affected my confidence. I spoke about how if it wasn’t for the words and love of both informal and formal groups around me it would have been much harder; how my community took responsibility to hold him accountable for his behaviour.

He wasn’t the enemy but every person has to take responsibility for the impact of their actions on others”.

This echoes the delicate path that AMAR are walking – holding men accountable for the violence within families yet clear that they are not the enemy. The women of AMAR wish to walk side by side with other social organisations, united against the violent policies of the government. It is already a hard task. They desire to build trust with men in the social organisations, showing them that that they are on the same side, build unity but just not ignore the shit the women have to put up with in their homes. Dignity for all, women and men.

Alone, we are weak, our fears, insecurities overwhelm us. But together I had the strength and support to manage this situation. I see that AMAR can play a similar role for the women of Arauca. Creating a space where we can support each other, grow together, encourage each other, be gently critical without damaging our self-esteem. We must laugh together

These were my honest words to these women. Speaking honestly with these women when I live such different experiences and priviliges is tough, it challenges me. I do not live surrounded by police, army, paramilitaries (who work alongside the army), and guerillas. When I share my perspective, shaped to encourage and support them, what accountability do I have to the suggestions I make? When I am told that to take action about an abusive neighbour is dangerous because you don’t know who they might be it reminds me how little I understand how this two decade long war over a land rich in oil weaves in to daily life. When I do not have to live with the daily consequences of my perspective what is my responsibility to the influence I may or may not have?

But as I spoke, nods, laughter and smiles held my hand and gave me a squeeze of reassurance. And it is these nods and smiles, not just to me, but to every woman who shared a part of herself, that makes AMAR such a powerful, exciting and necessary organisation. It is this womens’ space, where quiet women come alive with hidden energy and enthusiasm when we started talking about ideas for projects, where Sa~ shares an inspiring story of how she managed to help another women find her dignity and leave her violent husband, where we can dance together to end the meeting, that draws Raquel back in to the fabric of an Araucan social organisation. ”Having to live in Bogota and work on a computer all day as a continued prison, a form of pyschological torture.” Here she feels and acts with vibrancy I had not seen before. So despite the police monitoring of the house where we were sleeping, despite the nervous hands which shows what her face has the strength to hide, I imagine we will be back.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Where death lists become friends

October 2004 and I am leaving a meeting of my university walking club. I am handed this flyer with a note attached “Coca-Cola: Crimes in Colombia. Speaking :Edgar Paez, Sinaltrainal, Colombia. 7.30pm” I decide to stay instead of going to the union bar. The effect of his words put me on a new path.

He spoke about how the policies of this multinational are destroying lives in Colombia – through sacking workers and rehiring them as temporary workers, through unemployment, through the bullet of a gun. This was news, fucked up news, which I had not read about in the papers.

Even more crucially this was news combined with a plan of action. These were not words about violence that submerged me with gloom, desperation. This was a violent reality being told to me but with a refusal to be silenced. Instead there was a request for support coming directly from those affected: organise institutional boycotts of Coca-Cola to show people what was happening in Colombia and to force Coke to sit down and negotiate with the union for integral reparation: to fully repair the emotional, material, cultural and social damage done – in the families affected, in the workplace, in the union and in the community. Restoring dignity weaves through all of these.

This was it, I was being asked to help, to use my privilege as a british student. Ever a pragmatist (very soon to be on the path to becoming a radical one at that) I responded with determination and naïve/focused positivism. Of course we could kick Coca-Cola out of our union. Of course it was the right course of actions. And as I read, questioned, doubted, reaffirmed, I consciously immersed myself more in the Campaign against Coca-Cola. As I analysed, looked at what was going on it became impossible for me not to realise that my earlier moments of doubts came from the twisting and hiding of facts by Coca-Cola and a few unions that opposed the boycott for various complex but shit reasons.

Fast forward through four years of personal/political/emotional/spiritual awakening/maturing /developing, through the difficult slump of the student campaign against coca-cola in the uk through a reawakening within the camp for climate action process and I now arrive here: at the week long national assembly of sinaltrainal. A past me is thrust into the present as my past actions are connected across time to now, as I connect with people I was working with but who I imagined through the three sinaltrainal members I worked with on speaker tours in the uk: edgar, juan and euripides.

Last night while thinking about what I would write in this post I had the urge to read through old sinaltrainal press releases where they have publicised and condemn the threats they have received. Why?

In my speech at the end of the assembly, before being cajoled into playing my flute in front of them all, I spoke of getting over fears. I was thinking about chats during the week with different guys about participation in the political process. Many ideas were shared about how to improve this but it hits me now.

Fear of life ending was never mentioned an unspoken

The focus of the assembly was decision making and not-to-bad internal politics

  • how will they fight against sackings that violate legal and constitutional rights,
  • how can they prepare themselves better for negotiations with companies,
  • how can they counteract the work Nestle is doing to get the wives to be against the union activities of their husbands?
  • how can they build their demands for direct contract rather than through one of a thousand subcontractors where rights are eroded ever quicker.
  • how to continue their grassroots support of the sugar cane cutters who have been politicised by their recent 2 month long strike
  • how will they respond as union to the economic ‘crisis’ (“as opposed to the systemic crisis in which we live permanently”) given than colombia has second highest external and internal debt in the world –meaning a shrinking economy will make it near impossible to make payments.

I enjoyed listening, observing the dynamics without having to take a position – it left my ideas space for much maneuver. But what I didn’t engage with was the depth of the bloody reality for the union, despite knowing the statistics of violence.

Appreciating this more fully now back in Bogota, I see clearly as to why just my very presence was so openly and warmly received, just to spend time with them, with warm, kind men (with varying splashes of sexism thrown in to keep me on my toes) was really appreciated.

I read through old emails. 22nd November 2007: Jose de Jesus, a worker at a Nestle factory is killed…. in Dosquebradas. ... A* is from there. A* with whom we chatted about the internal union politics as we swam breaststroke side by side in the lunch break. He taught me how to play tejo – bit like french boules but with an angled board filled with clay that you have to get your disc to stick in to, he explained things when I got lost in the debates…. he has just been elected to the national committee of sinaltrainal.

I ask R~ if he took into account the security implications when he made the decision a few years to be on the National Committee. “No, I just saw things that needed doing and got on with them, found myself taking the initiative more and more in the union work and it seemed a natural next step to take part in the national organisation of the union. I take precautions like I only sharing my views with people who it is necessary to”

On Thursday night while a group of us were having a beer together in an outside bar they all noticed a guy sat on the table next to us. I didn’t spot him. I let relaxation set in as I made a judgement about what is and isn’t a safe space - based on limited experiences. Instead I noticed a family sat together in silence– women, boy and man - with 12 empty bottles of beer on the table. I felt sad for the emptiness that cloaked their space. R~ and I left to walk back to the holiday park after we could stand no more bad eighties rock that F~ insisted on putting on the duke box. When we got back, R~ got a call asking him to wake up the security and get them down to the plaza quick. The man in the bar and another had followed the group as they left the bar. Paramilitaries. They returned safely. Their jokes about the state of Colombia, about how ridiculous it is that they can’t go for a beer hundreds of miles away from where they do most of their union work attempted to dispel the the charged atmosphere.

I stayed with L~, the daughter of Santi, one of the guys involved, during all of this. She was shaken but not paniced. Seventeen years old and since the age of 11 a bodyguard has followed her father everywhere he goes. Later I catch her having a sneaky hidden kiss with one of the younger guys, all is well.

Twenty-two members of Sinaltrainal have been assassinated.

Reading the list of names makes me feel weak. Death threats are to people I have shared food or had a beer with, even played my flute for. Death threats may arrive for R ~ with whom I shared some beautiful spiritual intimate moments with this week

My soul is starting to root in Colombia.