Teachers murdered in Colombia: Twenty years of impunity

published 3 June 2010 updated 23 March 2011

Some men wearing masks came into the classroom and shot him, right in the middle of our lesson. They didn’t give him a chance to say anything. One of the masked men lifted our teacher’s dead body by the back of his shirt and spoke to us: ‘This man had to die because he was teaching you bad ideas. We can kill all of you as well, so don’t get any bad ideas if you want to stay alive.’

This testimony was one among the many gathered by Dr. Mario Novelli in a report prepared for EI in 2009, entitled Colombia's Classroom Wars. The person sharing the testimony was a child who witnessed the crime. So who are the masked men and what are the bad ideas they were referring to?

In Colombia, fear has forced more than three million people to leave their homes and abandon their land. They were caught up in the middle of a conflict between different armed groups: the Marxist-oriented guerrilla, the army, the narco-traffickers, and extreme right-wing paramilitary groups. The situation in schools in rural areas epitomises this strife: the guerrillas use schools as platforms to call for support of the local community; the army uses them as operational bases to combat the guerrillas. Helicopters land in school yards, troops sleep overnight in classrooms; narco-traffickers use them to hide their caches of drugs, while the paramilitaries break into them to "liquidate" people whom they consider legitimate military targets, that is, teachers. To complete the picture, students are recruited by the guerrillas and the paramilitaries alike. Some estimates put the number of child soldiers at between 8,000 and 10,000 (Human Rights Watch, 2010).

Education workers are the main victims of the selective assassinations. Most of them are union activists and, as such, are openly opposed to neo-liberal policies, including budget cuts and privatisation of essential public services such as healthcare and education, as well as national industries and natural resources which, since 2002, have been rapidly implemented under the rule of Colombia’s President, Álvaro Uribe.

In his report, Novelli explains: "While education unionists have been targeted by all armed actors in the Colombian conflict, it is the particular role of right-wing paramilitaries that has been the most prevalent and there are robust allegations pointing to their strong links with sections of the Colombian state."

Death squads

The origin of the right-wing paramilitaries dates back to the 1960’s, when large landowners began to support armed groups as a means of protection against guerrilla incursions, and to suppress calls for agrarian reform which demanded a fairer distribution of the land among the peasants.

Thus began a bloody legacy of murders and human rights violations by armed groups, which gradually increased in size and influence, spinning a web of "complex and often conflicting relationships with the political establishment, particular local elites and the drug cartels." An on-going political scandal in Colombia concerns so-called parapolitica, a term which refers to the links between elected politicians who are supportive of Uribe and the paramilitary organizations. “The parapolitica has demonstrated that the state was not a victim,” Novelli reports. “It appears that an important section of national and regional elites with a decisive presence in the state, as high government functionaries or as members placed there by popular vote, have aligned themselves with paramilitaries and drug traffickers to consolidate their dominance inside and outside the state, and to alter the political contest.”

Joining voices

In order to develop new strategies to help remedy this situation, Education International organised a training session in Bogota, in April 2010, together with FECODE, the largest federation of Colombian education unions, which is also one of the hardest-hit by the political violence. The meeting provided a valuable opportunity to facilitate the exchange of information and co-operation between union activists throughout the country. Data produced at the meeting showed that, between 1991 and 2010, approximately 873 teachers were murdered, including 13 between January and April this year. In over 96% of cases, no investigation was carried out or it was determined that the assassins could not be identified.

Participants in the training event also highlighted the fact that economic interests are a key to explaining the forced displacement of entire communities –often the poorest and most vulnerable, as in the case of Indigenous people– in order to "free" land which is then quickly converted into minefields or large-scale plantations financed by foreign capital, like the oil palms used to produce biodiesel. One report from the Arauca Teachers' Association pointed out that, "With the discovery of crude oil and increased guerrilla activity, this district became more and more important for the country and foreign interests because of the natural resources present within it. The Caño de Limón oil field area is a fully fledged North American 'state within the state'. Everyone knows about the tight security measures and the permanent presence of US military personnel side by side with Colombian troops."

Against this background, and in present-day conditions, the free-trade agreements with the United States, Canada and the European Union, which the Colombian government intends to ratify, can be seen to represent a harmful form of deregulation, given that they place the interests of multinational corporations above the welfare of the Colombian people and the fragile local economy. EI and its member organisations in Europe are putting pressure on the European Parliament and Commission to review the free-trade agreements. Although there is a clause that would annul them should there be “sudden disruption of democracy,” EI warns the EU against concluding such an agreement with a government that fails to curb human rights abuses and, in particular, the targeting of trade unionists.

The real question then is clear: what can be done to put an end to this climate of impunity and violence, which is deeply rooted in a purportedly democratic system?

The first thing we must do is continue making the teachers’ voice heard. We must draw the attention of the international community, once again, to the grave situation in Colombia, through the media and through inter-governmental institutions such as the Human Rights Councils, the European Union and the International Labour Organization. These platforms can be used to put pressure on the Colombian government to protect the life of all its citizens and to strengthen the judicial system, putting an end to the rampant impunity.

“I want to cry out but they won't let me”, says a Colombian folk song – a cowboy’s song which was banned in 1948 because of its subtle but clear political message. Teachers worldwide must show their solidarity with Colombia and become the voices of outrage that shout and cry, refusing to give in to violence. Voices that should be heard across the planet, until weapons finally fall silent.

By Mar Candela.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 34, June 2010.