Union leader never goes out without bullet-proof vest and pistol

25th July 2003 at 01:00
Samuel Morales never goes anywhere without his pistol, even in school.

Like other trade union leaders, the 34-year-old primary teacher is assigned bullet-proof vests, a bullet-proof vehicle and two bodyguards armed with 9mm pistols.

But since even this does not guarantee their security, they also have to carry legally registered arms into classes. "I carry a Baretta automatic," says Morales.

He is a member of the teachers' association of Arauca, a region in north-east Colombia, and president of the regional branch of the national executive in the Central Trades Union Federation of Colombia (Cut).

He and his wife and four young children regularly have to change addresses.

He recently had to flee the country for his own safety when assassins tried to kill him on the way back from a funeral - the attempt backfired when he changed his route and a journalist member of a regional peace committee was killed instead.

"I started as the only teacher in a school for 45 children aged five to 12 in Arauca. Now I'm fully employed working on the defence of labour and human rights," says Morales.

His career path has mirrored those of many teachers, even though trade unionists' lives are more at risk in this country than any other - with 186 murdered last year.

He became politically active when he could not accept that foreign oil companies were taking 400 barrels a day from an area right next to his school, yet he had to teach in a wooden school with a leaky palm leaf roof and earth floor, no water or sanitation and no textbooks.

Colombia has been dogged by conflicts since 1948, creating a lawlessness in which drug trafficking has flourished.

Most of them, Morales claims, have revolved around the exploitation by multinational companies of rural resources such as oil, carbon, gold and emeralds on the one hand, and the poverty of local people on the other, which among other things means young people are not getting a decent education.

"Our job is to tell the young people what this reality means. So one of the problems is that teachers start to be indentified with subversion," he says.

The mining can cause enormous economic and environmental damage while at the same time workers are paid very low wages, he says, and teachers are pushed to the fore as figureheads for the community.

"To be a teacher in Colombia is to become a social leader. You get to know the problems of peasant farmers and their families and do something about them.

"We put forward our requests and petitions to the multinationals via local and national government."

If a peasant community asks for roads, electricity and schools and their needs are not addressed, they may arm themselves or link up with rebel left-wing guerrilla forces, Morales says.

This, he alleges, has led to collaboration between some multinationals and the state in funding right-wing paramilitary groups, which protect the interests of the multinationals. The resulting conflict has left teachers caught in the middle, perceived as subversives for campaigning for their community, and a priority target for political assassinations.

Morales has a thick dossier of death threats received daily by himself and his colleagues. He draws out a note sent to the president of the teachers'

association in Arauca: "Look after your children or you won't see them again."

President Alvaro Uribe, who swept to power in elections a year ago promising a crackdown on violence, has made great play in the past week of moving his government to Arauca, in the conflict zone, for three days to signal his control of the situation.

But, under the protection programme that the government was obliged to set up by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the nine in 10 teachers who are trades union members are still given a printed checklist of security measures.

The warnings include: always check to see if your car is being followed, never sit in a public place with your back to the front door, always be aware of your escape routes from any situation and, if you carry a weapon, make sure it is ready to fire.

"Loaded?" I ask Morales.

"Always, and I make very sure."

But he has had to give up teaching because he believes it is too dangerous - for his pupils.

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