The killings last week of two labor leaders in Colombia underscore the need for the government to prosecute anti-union violence, Human Rights Watch said today.

Jairo Giraldo, of the national fruit-workers union, and Leonidas Silva Castro, of a teachers union, were murdered in separate incidents. The killers have not been caught and their motives are unknown.

“Colombia has a long and ugly history of killing trade unionists, and a dismal record when it comes to bringing their killers to justice,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “To make the country safe for unions, the authorities must ensure these cases are vigorously investigated and prosecuted.”

Twenty-six trade unionists, including five union leaders, have been killed in Colombia this year, according to Colombia’s largest labor federation, the Unitary Headquarters for Workers (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores). The National Labor School (Escuela Nacional Sindical), a prominent labor rights group in Colombia, has recorded more than 2,500 killings of trade unionists since 1986. Approximately 98 percent of these killings have never been solved.

Human Rights Watch noted that the killings are often attributed to paramilitary death squads, whose leaders have acknowledged targeting trade unionists. Left-wing guerrillas and the military have also been known to kill trade unionists. Some killings are probably due to common crime.

Giraldo, one of the two killed last week, was a leader of Sinaltraifrut, a union of fruit workers who work on farms that are reported to have been seized from their owners pursuant to drug-trafficking investigations. He broke with a broader union federation to support a free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States. Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos has attributed his killing to extreme left-wing groups who disliked his views.

Castro, the other recent victim, was the president of the Villacaro Municipality branch of the Teachers Union of Norte de Santander. He was killed at home on November 2, 2007 after attending a union-related event.

“Murders like these have a chilling effect on union members in Colombia,” said Vivanco. “Workers in Colombia should be able to push for their rights and assert their views without fearing for their lives.”