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Union killings loom over U.S.-Colombia trade pact
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Guillermo Rivera Fuquene's widow says her husband was kidnapped, tortured and killed just because he fought for the rights of Colombian workers and opposed President Alvaro Uribe's free-market policies.
Murders of labor leaders like Rivera Fuquene prompted U.S. Democrats last year to block a free-trade deal drawn up under President George W. Bush, and human rights groups are hopeful Barack Obama's arrival at the White House will see the killings face even greater scrutiny.
"It's absurd to approve a free-trade agreement when people get kidnapped and murdered and no one does anything about it," said Rivera Fuquene's widow, Sonia Betancourt, 36, in her apartment in a working-class Bogota neighborhood.
Colombia's trade pact will not be a top priority for Obama as he wrangles with the worst financial crisis in decades and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, his administration has already indicated it wants stronger guarantees on trade union rights from Uribe, a conservative who has twinned a U.S.-backed military crackdown on leftist rebels with market-friendly economics.
"Colombia must improve its efforts," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee soon before she was sworn in last month.
Uribe, who was one of Bush's closest allies in Latin America, says his government has already succeeded in reducing murders of unionists and ensuring more killers face justice.
"The murder of union leaders for the reason that they are union leaders is something that's disappearing," he said at a recent textile export fair.
The government pays for bodyguards for some 2,000 unionists as part of a $40 million per year protection program, and has sought to boost convictions of killers by forming a prosecution unit dedicated to investigating labor-related cases.
The impact of such measures is hard to assess, partly because the number of trade unionist killings is a source of dispute between the government and labor groups.
Colombia's National Labor School (ESN) says the number of killings actually rose last year to 49 from 39 in 2007, though fewer threats were reported. Uribe said last month that 36 unionists had been killed in 2008, down from nearly 200 when he took office in 2002.
Hiring bodyguards to protect prominent labor leaders has reduced the death toll in recent years, but the Central Workers Union, or CUT, says unions are still targets of repression.
"This is the only country in the world where a union leader has to have four guys with machine guns when he talks to the workers," CUT President Tarsicio Mora said.
"Everything that can be done is positive, but unfortunately there's no culture in the government or in business of respecting the right to form a union," he added.
Beyond their demands on human rights, union leaders in the Andean country say the U.S. free-trade deal would only benefit a wealthy elite, making life even harder for the millions of peasant farmers in Colombia.
Obama's administration could ask for a quicker pace of prosecutions in cases of union murders before agreeing to the trade deal.
"What really matters is, after a labor leader is killed, do you punish the killers or not?" said Adam Isacson, who analyzes U.S. ties with Bogota for the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
Of the 2,690 murders of union leaders recorded by the National Labor School since 1986, there have been just 91 convictions, according to its head, Luciano Sanin Vasquez, who addressed the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee on the issue on Thursday.
Isacson said he expected some kind of deal to be thrashed out on the trade deal toward the end of the year, although recent cases of civilian killings by the Colombian military could feed Democrats' concerns about human rights.
The deal cannot come fast enough for Colombia's exporters, who want a pact that locks in the duty-free access they already enjoy under an Andean trade law by which Washington rewards cooperation in fighting the cocaine trade.
For Sonia Betancourt, who accuses the state of involvement in her husband's murder last year, the new U.S. government should bring more pressure to bear over human rights crimes.
"Nothing will bring him back, but I don't want Guillermo to become just another case of impunity in this country," she said. "The Colombian government keeps on covering things up."
(Editing by Kieran Murray)
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