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Activist lawyer a target for prosecuting paramilitary officers

Murder isn’t the only method Colombian security forces use in attempting to make influential union activists disappear. As Mariano Jose Guerra Diaz knows all too well, denunciation is another desperate tactic.

Diaz, president of the Antioquia section of the Colombian trade union federation FENALTRASE (National Federation of Public Sector Workers), and a member of the federation’s national executive, is a human rights lawyer trained in mediation and conflict resolution as well as domestic violence and family law.

Formerly a public prosecutor, Diaz says it’s his work as a lawyer for victims of violence—including people affected by landmines, forced displacement and extrajudicial assassinations—that prompted a recent smear campaign against him by reactionary forces in the Colombian army.

In May this year, Diaz received a copy of a letter supposedly circulated by a well-known, progressive human rights NGO that he supports. The letter, printed with the NGO’s official letterhead and bearing the signatures of its leaders, denounced Diaz as a terrorist and accused him of being a member of the ELN (National Liberation Army), an opposition guerrilla group with cells operating throughout the country. Distancing itself from all of his activist work on the basis that he was not to be trusted, the letter—reputedly from a legitimate organization—was circulated throughout Colombian civil society, as well as to international agencies, in a clear attempt to destroy Diaz’s reputation and influence.

I talked to the organization, and of course they were horrified and had nothing to do with this,” Diaz says, showing the letter to CUPE Communications in an interview at CUPE National convention in Montreal. “The letter was produced by someone in the Fourth Brigade of the army. They stole the letterhead and forged the signature.”

Diaz says he met with United Nations and Red Cross officials shortly after the letter’s release, and his reputation remains intact. Looking back on it, he is convinced that the smear campaign was designed as much for revenge as it was a warning.

I’d been working on a case with victims prosecuting a demobilized paramilitary leader.  As a result of the case he was convicted and sentenced to 22 years and eight months in prison, a rare outcome these days,” he says.

It’s not hard to see why the extreme right in Colombia would have it in for Diaz. Also past president of ASONAL, the judicial workers’ union, Diaz has represented Colombian civil society at international meetings of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and is an active member and former candidate of the Alternative Democratic Pole, a coalition of opposition parties. FENALTRASE, a federation of state workers, represents more than 80 per cent of the state unions on Colombia with a membership of 150,000. Diaz is currently partnered with two other lawyers offering services ranging from legal advice to accompaniment and representation. He does not charge for his work with victims of violence, and he doesn’t need to advertise: being as high profile as he is means that people know how to find him.

Being a labour representative in Colombia is dangerous enough. But representing victims of state crime, and prosecuting paramilitary and military officers in a court of law, can be lethal. After receiving numerous death threats, Diaz lives with security measures to protect him.

Diaz began his career in the attorney general’s office, where he learned how the wheels of justice work in Colombia.
“The attorney general is elected from a group of people selected by the president,” he explains. “When an AG is chosen, they should be a top lawyer with a high degree of understanding of criminal law, they must have respect in the community and they must be willing to investigate anybody. Where we have lost autonomy in the system is with political interference from the legislative branch.”

Diaz points to a case where an army general suspected of leading, training and recruiting paramilitary soldiers was under investigation by the attorney general’s office. When a new AG was named, he took the evidence from the lawyers investigating the case and moved it to a new group of lawyers in Bogota. The general was subsequently let go, and the case was closed. When that AG was replaced, the case against the army general was reopened and he is now being investigated for genocide and the murder of trade union leaders.

This is one of many cases where there is open intervention by the president into matters that are strictly the AG’s and the judiciary’s responsibility,” says Diaz. “This destroys the harmony that is supposed to exist between the powers of government, from the executive to the judicial branch. That is one of ASONAL’s biggest concerns: not just labour rights and stability in the sector, but the autonomy and independence of the judiciary that should be there but is lacking.”

Diaz says that one of ASONAL’s main policy recommendations is that the Crown Prosecutor who takes on a case must be the one who completes the case unless his or her life or family is deemed to be in danger. The way things are now, prosecutors are changed as often as four or five times in a single case—this does help the cause of justice in a country with a 95-per-cent impunity rate.

Diaz cites one extreme example in Cali, where in September, 2005 a student named Jhonny Silva was shot dead by police during a protest outside a university campus. The government attorney for this case has changed 15 times.

The lawyer should be changed only on request, but with good reason, and it has to be motivated by evidence and circumstance,” says Diaz.

On the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement, Diaz is unequivocal: “We are against any agreements that would harm our productive ability. The right to association must be respected in trade agreements, with no persecution for union membership.”

Diaz says that while collective bargaining might be protected in Colombian law, it doesn’t exist in reality and there is no possibility of salary increases or benefits for most Colombian workers.

The Ministry of Social Protection is where labour is handled,” he says. “You can try to get a union certified there, but they impede.”

Diaz repeats the message that all Colombian activists who visit Canada have shared: that international solidarity—the ability to mobilize and accompany the trade union movement in Colombia—is absolutely vital to the future of labour rights in Colombia.

In a country of 45 million people, 38 million live below the poverty line, four million are displaced, 2.5 million are without work, and 40,000 have disappeared,” he says. “We need your help.”