Civil war 'kills one teacher a week'

May 23, 2003

THES reporters survey a worrying human rights situation in Latin America

One teacher or lecturer in Colombia has been killed every week so far this year according to Fecode, the country's teachers' union. It says the death toll has increased sharply each year since 1999, when it stood at .

Officials last month told a visiting delegation, including UK lecturers and education trade unionists, that 83 teachers were murdered in 2002 as a result of Colombia's civil war.

Development charity War on Want and campaign group Justice for Colombia took delegates from UK trade unions, including the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe and Unison HE, to witness first-hand the daily risks run by educators, students and union members.

It is estimated that 95 per cent of human rights abuses are carried out by paramilitary death squads - rightwing militias that have documented links to the official armed forces and the authorities. The delegation was told of one such group, "Death to Trades Unionists", that, in a letter seen by the delegation, made death threats against ten lecturers at the University of Southern Colombia, branding them "military targets".

Angela Roger, senior lecturer in education at the University of Dundee and vice-president of the AUT, was a member of the delegation. "We heard numerous accounts of killings and kidnappings, including a university porter being gunned down by two assassins on motorbikes and the shooting of an ordinary teacher while driving home with his wife."

Students are also prime targets for terror: up to 70 student leaders have disappeared in the past five years.

Gerard Kelly, president of Natfhe and a law lecturer at the Manchester College of Arts and Technology, said: "We were told of students at the Universidad del Atl ntico in Antioquia province being killed in front of a classroom (of students) where they were being taught."

There has been a long-running campaign by students and lecturers against government plans to privatise higher education. Students at the Universidad del Valle in Cali recently demonstrated against police raids on campus.

They organised a peaceful weekend protest, but the police were called to shut the university. When the students turned up for class the following Monday, they found the gates locked and blocked by riot police and two tanks.

Across Colombia, students are targets. In Cúcuta, paramilitaries imposed a 10.30pm curfew on young people, and female students were banned from wearing tight tops and jeans. The delegation heard that those unfortunate enough to attract the attentions of the paramilitary groups were punished with acid attacks.

Private companies are being brought into the education sector under government policies to privatise higher education. In 1990, about 90 per cent of university workers were on permanent contracts. In 2003, that figure had fallen to about 10 per cent.


The cost of putting principles before security

Gloria Hernandez (not her real name) was forced to flee to Bogotá from Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast. She had been teaching linguistics at the Universidad del Atlántico. She was a member of the ASPU trade union, and had been receiving death threats from paramilitary groups since 1998.

She was among staff and students pressing the local authorities to provide protection for those at risk of violence. When no assistance materialised, she was advised by the authorities to go to Bogot . On arrival in the capital, she was afforded no help whatsoever, neither with finding another job nor with her eligibility for social security.

Edwin Lopez, a final-year student at the University of Francisco de Paula Santander, in Cúcuta, disappeared on April 12. He had been involved with social work in a poor neighbourhood that was plagued by violence. Mr Lopez was reportedly taken from his house by masked men, who also stole his computer with all his work on it - an indication that this was unlikely to be petty theft.

Diego Gersan, a biology and chemistry student, was kidnapped from the same university on April 4. He was a founding member of the Colombia Student University Association, a serious crime in an area controlled by paramilitary forces.

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