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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 4, March 2004

Teaching is a dangerous profession in Colombia

by Jacqui Birchall

Some 50 teachers are murdered in Colombia yearly. Others are kidnapped or are missing. On April 7, 2003, Luz Elena Zapata Cifuentes, a teacher, was violently extracted from the vehicle in which she was travelling and murdered by a death squad in Aserma. One day later, Ana Cecillia Duque, also a teacher, was executed by an ELN firing squad. On April 7, Evelio Germán Salcedo Taticuán was shot dead as he was walking home. Those are only three of many teacher deaths reported by Education International (EI), a Brussels-based organization representing education personnel worldwide. For many years the persecution of trade unionists in general, but educators in particular, has been well known. Assassination, disappearances, beatings, and threats have become a regular occurrence. Teachers are targets of paramilitary groups rarely brought to justice.

Many colleagues have been assassinated. Hundreds have received written warnings that they are targets and will be killed from the paramilitary United Self Defense League. The sinister letters are distributed to the individuals and to the media, and some letters indicate that the government has been advised of the plan to kill "parasites."

In some parts of the country, young pupils are recruited by the paramilitary and drug traffickers and trained to kill. The young killers, the "sicarios," have threatened and on occasion killed their teachers to prevent the teachers from revealing them. More than 200 teachers are in hiding. Threatened by the paramilitary, the guerillas, the army, the "convivir" (civil armed groups), or by the drug traffickers, the teachers have had to flee their homes and their jobs, often leaving family behind whose only support is whatever the teachers’ union, FECODE, is able to provide.

Teachers are the targets of violence because of their influence in Colombian society. They teach democratic values, they defend human rights, and they speak of a culture of peace, of a different way of life. They are often leaders in their communities. That is all it takes to make them targets.

FECODE (the Colombian Teachers’ Union) activists are targets, as are all the members of the executive committee of the union. A thousand teachers are internally displaced in Colombia, and the numbers are growing. All sectors of the education system are targeted—from preschool to tertiary teachers and education personnel. No group is exempt. Families are divided when teachers are forced to move to safety.

In some areas of the country, it is possible to be given a status that indicates authorities are aware an educator has to go into hiding. This helps teachers who must flee maintain some employment rights even though they are not on the job. Most, however, cannot stay in their home villages long enough to get such status and sometimes as a result are also prosecuted for leaving their position without permission. Families are prosecuted when the prime target of the paramilitary group is in hiding. Some teachers’ children have been murdered or tortured because the teacher has gone into hiding.

EI asks teachers around the world to send letters of protest to the president and the minister of justice in Colombia with a copy to FECODE.

The president:
S.E. Dr. Álvaro Uribe Vélez, President de la República, Palacio de Narino, Carrera 8 no 7-26, Santafé de Bogatá, Colombia. f: 571-566-20-78, auribe@presidencia.gov.co, rdh@presidencia.gov.co

The minister of justice:
Sr. Fernando Londono Hoyo, Ministro del Interior y Justicia, Palacio Echverry, Carrera 8a no8-09, piso 2o, Santafé de Bogatá, Colombia. f: 571-566-45-73, miniterior@myrealbox.com

The teachers’ union:
Sr. Jorge Eliécer Guevara, Presidente FECODE, Carrera 13A no. 34-54, Santafé de Bogatá, Colombia. f: 57-1-285-3245, fecode@fecode.edu.co

Jacqui Birchall teaches at Fraser Heights Secondary School, Surrey, and is a member of the Teacher Newsmagazine Advisory Board.

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