United Against Silence

Camilla Capasso
13 min readAug 23, 2019

More than 60 trade unionists have been killed in Guatemala since 2007, making it the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist. For years, UK organisations have been working to improve the situation in the country. This multimedia project documents their work.

Puerto Quetzal (Credits: Stan Shebs)
Puerto Quetzal (Credits: Stan Shebs)

Puerto Quetzal is Guatemala’s largest Pacific Ocean port.

Cruise ships come and go every day carrying cheerful crowds of tourists for a trip round the country’s most memorable natural sites. Off to Antigua and then up to the Panama Canal. A quick stop to Tikal, one of the two Maya sites in the northern rain forest region of Guatemala and then back to Puerto Quetzal to grab a coffee in one of the numerous cafès that populate the port.

Pedro Zamora had walked for years through the alleys of Puerto Quetzal; he knew every boardwalk, every pier, every boat. The 15th of January 2007 was just a day like any other for him. Driving back home on his pick-up truck from the local clinic with his two children, Pedro did not see the black car that was waiting for him on the side of the road; he didn’t have time. A hundred bullets were fired against his truck, twenty of them hit him. The killers got off the car; Zamora pushed his children down trying to protect them. One of the killers looked at Angel — Zamora’s oldest son: “Don’t worry.” — he said — “We are not here to kill you. We came to kill your father.” He struck a gun in Zamora’s mouth and fired the fatal shot.

Zamora was a trade unionist in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. It doesn’t matter if you are with your children in a place as cheerful as Puerto Quetzal. If you are a trade unionist in Guatemala you know that your life is always on the line.

Since 2007, 64 trade unionists have been killed. The last one, Marlon Dagoberto Vàsquez Lòpez was shot in January 2014 during a meeting with banana workers’ union members. He was only 19.

Chapter 1: Deadliest Place on Earth

A Report published by the International Trade Union Confederation in June 2013 names Guatemala as the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist. The death of Marlon Dagoberto Vàsquez Lòpez, last January, is only the last in a long series of episodes of violence against trade unions. Murders, torture, kidnappings, breaks-in and death threats have sadly become part of trade unionists’ daily life in Guatemala.

Violence against unionists has been a serious issue in Guatemala for decades.

They came under attack for the first time between 1930 and 1944 under the presidency of General Jorge Ubico. Throughout the fourteen years of his presidency, Ubico carried on a systematic campaign of violence against everything that could be associated with the words ‘union’, ‘strike’, and ‘labour rights’. In 1944, the Guatemalan population organised a non-violent uprising that led to Ubico’s resignation and to the democratic election of Jacobo Arbenz.

Many Guatemalans, especially those who witnessed the uprising, still consider that moment as the turning point in forging today’s Guatemala.

Under Arbenz’s government unionism grew again. After more than a decade Guatemalan workers obtained the right to organise themselves as well as a national social security system, the minimum wage and a regulation of child and women’s labour.

In 1952 the Communist Labour Party was legalised and unions started becoming increasingly strong within the banana sector, which quickly became the cornerstone of Guatemala’s economy. At that time the majority of banana plantations in the country belonged to the United Fruit Company, a US corporation that had flourished in mid-1920s. In his attempt to seek economic independence from the US, Arbenz began an agrarian reform to expropriate the lands owned by the UF offering to pay the company $1.2 million in return. Afraid to lose its interests in the country, United Fruit Company started collaborating with the CIA to persuade the US administration that Arbenz was a communist sympathiser and, therefore, a threat to the democratic stability of the country. In June 1954, the US government authorised the CIA to sponsor a coup d’etat with the intention of overthrowing the Guatemalan government. Arbenz resigned and fled to Mexico where he died in 1971.

Following the coup d’état all union leaders were jailed or executed. In 1961 only 50 unions were registered with the government, compared to the 500 operating in the years before the coup.

During the following years the Guatemalan Army carried out a selective campaign of violence against trade unionists both in the cities and in the countryside. “During this period,” says Enrico Tortolano, PCS Research and Policy Officer, “trade unionists were regularly assassinated and had to go in hiding in order to carry out underground activities. Some of them even joined the rebels in the mountains.”

On 21 June 1980, twenty-seven trade unionists were kidnapped during a meeting at the headquarters of the trade union federation Central Nactional de Trabajadores (CNT). Despite national and international organisations campaigning to start an investigation, the Guatemalan authorities refused to cooperate. No investigation was ever conducted and the fate of those 27 trade unionists remains unknown.

After more than 30 years the conditions in which trade unionists operate remain unchanged. Despite being aware of the situation, the current government of President Otto Perez Molina doesn’t seem to be working towards a solution. Given the ongoing anti-union violence and the lack of government intervention it is unsurprising that only 1.6% of the working population has joined a union. Those who are actively involved in trade union activities are often fired by the employers if not directly threatened. Most of the times workers are not even allowed to organise themselves and set up a union.

Enrico Tortolano, PCS Policy Officer, talks about the history of unionism in Guatemala.

Chapter 2: A Union in the Making

Sayaxche is a small town on the edge of the jungle that runs from the sandy banks of the Rio de la Pasion river down to the Mexican border. There’s a ferry docked at the river’s quay. For centuries it was used to transport food, livestock, and timber. That was before trucks loaded with palm oil began to drive across the town’s main roads, before hectares of jungles were eradicated to leave space for endless plantations of African palms. Arranged in straight lines the palm trees grow in valleys surrounded by cobble-stoned hills. Every hectare produces 7 tons of palm oil, the cheapest and most popular source for agrofuel.

In the past decade, Guatemala has become the main producer and exporter of African palm oil in the world. In Sayaxche, local peasants and farmers have been forced to sell their lands to speculators who then leased them to national and international agro-industrial companies.

Meeting of African palm workers and trade unionists in Sayaxche

“There are thousands of people who have been left without any land to sustain themselves.” — says Sam Jones, a member of Peace Brigades International who has worked for many years with Guatemalan palm workers. “Consequently, people from all over the country came to the north east of Guatemala, in towns like Sayaxche, to work on the palm plantations.”

What they find is something very close to our idea of hell. The air in the plantations is sweltering, the working conditions are dangerous and the workers’ pay is way under the minimum wage. At the end of 2011, a group of campesinos in Sayaxche started setting up a union with the support of the town’s mayor. Despite meeting a lot of resistance from the local companies the group was able to present a formal report to the Labour Ministry. Few weeks later, a ministerial delegation was sent to verify the working conditions in four palm companies in Sayaxche. Only two companies, RESPA and Tikindustrias S.A, allowed the delegation to visit the plantations and none of the four companies supplied the legal information asked for by the ministerial inspectors.

Following the inspection, as no real measure had been taken against the palm factories, almost 10,000 workers in Sayaxche started blocking the roads to stop the trucks from reaching the plantations. “When the campesinos started blocking the roads” — says Jones — “the companies put up a massive campaign to convince the government to use military intervention against them. They also published a document recommending to the Guatemalan government that they should use military intelligence to monitor the workers who were organising themselves.”

It took a week to convince both the companies and the workers in Sayaxche to bury the hatchet and start real negotiations. But controversies are not going to end until unionist’s rights are fully recognised.

Sam Jones, member of Peace Brigades International, talks about the difficulties that workers in Sayaxche had to face in their attempt to set up a union.

Chapter 3: Banana Unions under attack

Guatemala is the land of the palms. While the north is well known for its extensive production of African palm oil, the rest of the country is filled with endless plantations of banana palm trees. Despite the agricultural sector accounting with 38% of the labour force, unions keep struggling to protect workers’ rights as they deal with continuous episodes of violence. In most cases the Labour courts are incapable of guaranteeing the respect of labour laws and the authors of the violence end up unpunished. Impunity is, in fact, one of the most serious problems affecting Guatemala.

When asked who foments the violence against trade unionists in the country, Banana Link activist Alistair Smith seems hesitant, “It’s hard to say.” — he explains — “There is no hard evidence. Some of the companies are not the innocents in this. They may not be directly involved in the violence but they are certainly involved in some illegal paramilitary-style groups who are actually the authors of the threats. But again, there is no legal evidence.” He continues, “Guatemalan unions have been trying to denounce these acts of violence by appealing to the public authorities of the country to investigate cases and bring people to justice but with very little results.”

The situation of banana workers’ unions in the south-east of Guatemala is particularly dramatic. For decades, the coastal department of Izabal has been the centre of social struggles between banana multinationals and local trade unions. Since 2007, when banana union leader Marco Tulio Ramirez was assassinated, violence against union members has escalated. His brother Noè is now the new General Secretary of SITRABI, the country’s oldest private sector union. Despite his brother’s death and the murder of other seven union leaders over the last three years, Noè Ramirez has managed to keep the struggle alive.

In Izabal, as a matter of fact, nearly all 6000 banana workers employed by Chiquita (former United Fruit Company) and Del Monte are unionised. SITRABI has also managed to secure workers with a minimum wage and ‘decent’ working conditions thanks to continuous collective bargaining with the trade companies.

Worrying reports, however, are coming from the Pacific South of the country, a sort of ‘black hole’ for trade unionism. The whole area appears to be controlled by paramilitary groups who have been violently repressing any attempt to organise workers. The cheap bananas coming from plantations in the Pacific South are also undermining the Izabal industry where almost all production comes from unionised labour.

In 2011, SITRABI and the national federations organised a Forum designed to start a dialogue over labour conditions with banana companies in the Pacific South. The Labour, Minister Carlos Contreras Solórzano, attended two of the meetings and, although he didn’t play a key role in the whole process, the Forum set a positive precedent for both workers and trade unionists.

Banana plantations

Chapter 4: International Help

he Trade Union Congress is located in a tall building in central London, only 10 minutes from Euston Station. Inside, the atmosphere is calm and friendly.

I went to meet Stephen Russell, TUC new International Policy Officer. He just came back from a one-week mission to Guatemala to check on the progress made by unions in the country.

The TUC started working in Guatemala a couple of years ago when the number of reports of violence against unionists became to grow. Since then, the TUC has joined Banana Link, a British non-profit organisation, in the attempt to improve the conditions of trade unions in Guatemala.

“I was part of a delegation of British unions and human rights organisations.” — Mr Russell explains — “Last year the TUC decided to fund an education project for Guatemalan unions, particularly SITRABI, the banana workers’ union. We had a very good feedback on it and early this year we decided to send a delegation in the country to check on the progress made. We wanted to combine an evaluation of the project itself with a demonstrable presence in the country, a statement that British unions are aware and care about the fate of their comrades in Guatemala. This way we can begin to raise the profile of the situation and start a process by which Guatemala is something that trips more easily of the tongue in the list of main trade union causes.”

SITRABI: banana workers’ union / “Which bananas would you eat? Non-union or union?” (Credits: Giorgio Trucchi | Rel-UITA)

Last June, Banana Link decided to organise an education programme for banana workers’ unions in the north of Guatemala. The TUC was asked to fund the project and run the workshops with a focus on bargaining strategies, negotiating practices and social dialogue.

According to Sam Gurney, former TUC International Policy Officer who curated the project last year, the workshops were aiming to provide activists in Guatemala with the tools and the skills necessary to build union structures. “They learned a lot about the structure of other national and international trade union centres.” — he says — “SITRABI, for example, is trying to move from what is called an enterprise union to become a broader representative of the banana industry. That’s an important change because that’s the way most British unions run themselves.”

Following the project, SITRABI managed to set up an industry round table with banana companies operating in the North of the country and the Guatemalan Labour Ministry. Alistair Smith, Banana Link international coordinator, has worked with TUC to put the Guatemalan government under pressure in order to make the industry round table happen. “One of the key aims” — he explains — “was to establish a tripartite dialogue to resolve problems, deal with rights issues and convince smaller companies to participate in the collective dialogue.”

As TUC and Banana Link observed during their recent visit to Guatemala, the industry round table is bearing its fruits. “The employers are fully engaging, in the sense that they are turning up and talking.” — says Mr Russell — “The government is apparently trying to move issues forward between unions and employers and the unions, which asked for it in the first place, are moderately happy. The problem with the companies is that they think their agreeing to turn up is their big concession. The employers need a bit of educating to realise that just turning up and talking isn’t any good if they never agree to anything.”

Despite some reluctance on the part of the banana companies, TUC and Banana Link attended one of the meetings within the industry round table. The main discussion revolved around ‘deductions’ — the sum of money that is automatically deducted from workers’ salaries to cover their health care costs. The companies are supposed to hand over the workers’ deductions to the government along with their contribution to their equivalent of national insurance. In a number of cases, however, the employers have been keeping the money — a total of £50,000.

“This is obviously bad for SITRABI but worse for the workers.” — says Stephen Russell — “Without a national insurance, workers are not eligible for any health care. And normally they don’t realise it until they actually need medical assistance.” The government has been putting pressure on the companies to return the money but, so far, only few of them have been fined.

“Understanding the struggle of Guatemalan unions can be hard.” — he concludes — “Trade unions in Britain come under fire a lot but it is only metaphorical. We do struggle here but it’s not the same thing at all. We all share the same goals but the obstacles we face, while all being real, are very very different.”

Chapter 5: The Importance of Solidarity

The TUC and Banana Link are now aiming to get more UK organisations involved in order to raise awareness. On the 31st of May 2014, TUC in partnership with Banana Link, Amnesty International, Guatemala Solidarity Network and Peace Brigades International will organise a conference in London about the violation of human rights in Guatemala. Kevin Hayes, one of the organisers of the conference, seems to share TUC’s view on the importance of building links of international solidarity between Guatemalan and British organisations. “The Guatemala Conference in May will be a wonderful opportunity to hear TUC’s first-hand reports on the situation of workers’ unions in the country. Fresh from their fact-finding delegation, TUC and Banana Link members will help people understand the reasons behind the campaign of violence against trade activists in Guatemala and the importance of strengthen links of solidarity between British and Guatemalan unions.”

So far, the work done by TUC and Banana Link in cooperation with SITRABI has been rewarding. Not only they have been able to drive international attention on the issue but they also managed to start real negotiations with banana companies in the Pacific South.

AgroAmerica, one of the most important agro-companies in Guatemala, has been particularly open to dialogue. Last year during a meeting with SITRABI, Fernando Bolaños, the owner of AgroAmerica, claimed to be willing to work with international organisations to stop the current violence against trade unionists in the country. “The world has changed” — said Balaños — “and my belief is that we need to train a new generation of young unionists who understand the nature of the business and can help us develop tolerance and mature relations in our industry.”

Balaños’ stance will hopefully mark the beginning of a new era for Guatemalan unions — an era of frank and sincere dialogue in which they will finally come out from the silence.

Campaigning journalist Enrico Tortolano seems optimistic. “I can see that things are improving in Guatemala.” — he says — “The trade union community in the UK has played a very positive role in putting international pressure on the Guatemalan government to open up structures where there can be real worker-employer dialogue. There’s still a long way to go but we need to maintain the international spotlight on Guatemala if we want unionists there to feel that they are not alone.”

(Article first published in April 2014)