The Damned of Petroleum

Colombia has long been known as the deadliest country for trade unionists. For the first decade of 21th century, the Colombian NGO CINEP identified an annual average of 100 union leaders killed per year, making one country representative of 63 % of the worldwide murders of labor leaders. Since 1985, over 3000 trade union activists have been killed. This data does not take into account the cases of arbitrary detention, death threats, disappearances or torture.

This series presents examples of this tragic blow to the freedom of association and the fundamental right to strike. It tells the story of a social conflict between USO workers and a multinational CEPSA subcontractor, Termotécnica, that took place in 2012. The conflict ends with the detention of USO leader, and the death of one of the workers, Milton Rivas Parra, murdered by 26 bullets in unexplained circumstances.

The USO (Union Sindical Obrera) is the oldest and one of the most powerful trade union in the country. For over 90 years the USO has fought for the defense of oil workers rights and been a leading voice in keeping Colombia’s precious oil resources in the hands of the nation under the banner “Dignity and Sovereignty”. The petroleum industry is an essential economic activity for Colombia, representing over half of the country’s foreign export capital. Today, several multinational companies are exploiting this “black gold” in many parts of country. The rural lands of Puerto Gaitán, in the oriental Llanos, currently constitute more than 33 % of the national oil production. This isolated place made of savannas, hills, oasis, red dust and sand, is a border for the colonization process. The recent discovery and subsequent oil boom have radically changed the region, uprooting indigenous communities, populating the open spaces and changing the cultural lifestyle of the traditional “Llaneros” farmers.

This industry is fed with a flexible workforce coming from all parts of Colombia, who are subject to dreadful working conditions. In Campo Rubiales and Campo Quifa, the largest oilfields in the area, the Canadian multinational Pacific Rubiales Energy produces 250.000 barrels per day, representing a quarter of the national production. In 2011, the USO launched an organizing effort with workers and succeed in affiliating a majority of Campo Rubiales, before being forced out by an axis of armed state forces, Pacific Rubiales Energy’s actions and a newly formed company union.

The USO office was closed in Puerto Gaitán after the local leaders received numerous death threats.

Today, the USO has restored their commitment to establishing a presence in the region. In January 2015 the union opened a new headquarters that is being staffed by recently returned workers who were forced to exil due to death threats following the 2011 organizing process.