Globe, Latin America, United Kingdom

Reasons for exile, break-down and hope

When he returned to Urabá in 1977, Luis Asdrúbal Jiménez Vaca found a region that was prosperous but in the grip of terror, whose inhabitants were beginning to resist the loss of their lands. Above all they were resisting being exploited and silenced by national and foreign companies, which were expanding their seed farms and plantations for exporting bananas, wood and other agricultural products.


Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marin


They arrived in 1959, proclaiming paradise, and forcing landowners to sell up, in such a way that the landscape changed its owners, under the indifferent gaze of the authorities and the army, who preferred to punish those who opposed the new reality.

Deprived of their land and their income, the population were forced to become employees for deplorable wages, scarce benefits, and working days that reached almost 24 hours.

They tried to organise in vain, because when the protested they were sacked, arrested or disappeared. Being a trade union leader was already considered dangerous, and eventually it became ‘a crime’.

This was when Asdrúbal arrived on the scene. He had become disillusioned with criminal law, which he had practiced in Medellín, in the days when he still thought he could defend the truth, but the irregularities of the judicial system and the corruption in prisons led him to Labour Law, and what better place than his own birthplace to practice it.

Initially he had no problems because he confined himself to implementing the claims of workers through legal channels, and since trade unions hardly existed, there were no risks.

But the workers decided to organise, and he advised and defended them, becoming so involved in the issues that he joined the regional Pro-Central Trade Union Committee, during the setting up of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, the CUT.

And in an area which had been declared a ‘danger zone’, where opposition was synonymous with subversion, Asdrúbal soon became an ‘inconveneince’.

The first threat happened after one morning in December 1981, when a military patrol had burst into a meeting of Sintagro, in Turbo, and arrested people.

They detained Jiménez Vaca for a couple of hours, and told him to report to the Voltigeros Regiment base after 3 days. When he arrived, a soldier warned him that they knew the trade union was ‘infiltrated by guerillas’, and that Asdrúbal could identify them.

The second threat was direct. It happened a year later in the same base, when he had supported a group of farm workers who had occupied a farm. There, Colonel José Joaquín Gamboa told him that “these invaders were creating disorder in the area and that if the army had to intervene, they come in shooting”. He criticised him for advising Sintrauniban and the sacked workers who were its members, because “they were making too many problems for the Union of Banana Producers”, and were known to be supported by Asdrúbal, who – in the opinion of the soldier – must be aware of the ‘darker’ aims of the leaders.

For ‘reasons of public order’, any union meeting had to be notified to the Voltigeros Regiment, and required its authorisation.

The link between the army and the manufacturers became so close that labour relations were more affected by the army presence than by the labour authorities.

Luis asdrubal graFor that reason it was inevitable that the army would interfere in trade union activity and unleash a ruthless persecution, where any demand could lead to arrest, sacking, disappearance or the death of the workers.

In 1984 when the government of Belisario Betancur and the guerrillas of the FARC and EPL agreed a military truce and cease-fire, the workers had the opportunity to organise and grow. Sintagro, for example, which had previously had only 40 affiliated workers, grew to 14,000 in just over a year, and beginning from no collective labour agreements it achieved over 200. This was also the peak of the opposition and popular movements, with the emergence of the Unión Patriótica, the Frente Popular and A Luchar.

But the truce was broken, the unions were left submerged in the armed conflict and became victims of the anti-subversive battle. And since between 1984 and 1987 there were several negotiations of collective labour agreements  – in the majority of which Asdrúbal took part – many union members were assassinated. Urabá was one of the areas most affected: 320 banana production workers had been murdered in September 1986, and only 25% of the negotiators were still in the area; the rest were either dead or had fled. In addition, in the Magdalena Medio region the paramilitaries had emerged, and their ‘model’ had been exported to other areas, including Urabá.

The terror imposed its rule in a country that was in shock, under a government that had no plans to deal with the situation. But the violence became so intolerable and the pressure from the popular movements so strong, that peace and reconciliation commissions were created for the region, which Asdrúbal was involved in, as he was too in the regional civic committee on unemployment in 1985.

Doing this only heightened the threats against his life, which he reported to judges, police, the Public Prosecutor, and the Interior Ministry of Antioch province. But no-one did anything.

On the contrary, the 10th Brigade intensified their harassments, installed road-blocks on the highways and the roads leading to banana plantations, ordered controls/censo and identity checks on workers; and implemented a publicity campaign claiming that in Urabá, there existed ‘labour movements with an armed wing’.

The murders and disappearances were happening on a daily basis, and union offices were being knocked down or dynamited.

Nelson Gravini, a political activist held in the Bellavista prison in Medellin, told Asdrúbal that while he was being tortured in the brigade HQ, he had seen photographs of various people on the walls, with notes saying ‘executed’ or ‘to be executed’.

Asdrúbal was in the second group.

Eduard Umaña himself told him that during his visit to the region as a member of the High Level Commision he had been informed unofficially of the plan to “intensify the use of force to solve problems and to eliminate obstructions like Asdrúbal Jiménez”. One of those ‘solutions’ was his own family: in March 1986 villagers in Chigorodó had witnessed his brother Eduard being forced into an army vehicle; they never saw him again. Six years later in the same municipal area, another of his brothers, Edgard, was murdered, and in 1998 his cousin Jorge Carvajal Jiménez, an advisor to the Unión Patriótica in Mutatá, met the same fate in Medellin.

The situation worsened for Asdrúbal when he made a complaint to the local council in Turbo, on behalf of the Sindacato de Trabajadores Municipales (Municipal Workers Union). The result was that the Labour Tribunal and the Superior Tribunal of Medellin ordered the Mayor, Captain Carlos Alberto Gámez Parra to re-employ some sacked workers and pay them compensation. And when he refused the municipal accounts were frozen.

This was his worst ‘crime’, worse even than being a member of the policy committee of the Frente Popular.

From then on he was subject to harassment and surveillance; he received phone calls informing him that they would kill him unless he left Urabá within 24 hours. He was followed wherever he went; they posted notes under his door, threatened his family, and distributed pamphlets between Chigorodó and Necoclí, describing him as a drug gang member.

The latter was what led him to pack his bags and leave for Medellin in 1987. Of course he continued with his union work, although in secret because of the continuing threats.

They went several times to his office in Medellin planning to assassinate him, and for this reason he only went out when people came to take him to the place where negotiations were being held. Even so, they tried to set a trap for him in one of the hotels where there was a meeting, but he managed to escape. Desperate and fearful, he sold his office, went into hiding for 6 months, and in November 1987 left to open a new office with some colleagues in Bogotá.

After some time, as the harassments continued, he decided it was the moment to take his family away from Medellin. Feeling calmer after doing this, he stayed a short time in the city. He made a couple of phone calls and took the plane to the airport of José Maria Córdoba in Rionegro.

While he was there his companion warned him about a man who seemed to be watching them, standing near one of the phone boxes. He was about 30, dark-skinned, medium height, wearing a blue running shirt, with dark glasses and a backpack over his shoulder.

He was trying to pass unnoticed but not succeeding, so they decided it would be less risky if they took a bus as far as Plazuela Nutibara. There were few taxis there, but a lot of travellers, however a driver, aged about 55, tall and thin, very ‘peasant’ in looks, waited until everyone else had gone, and then came over to the lawyer to offer his services.

It was Monday April 4th 1988, and the afternoon heat was making the travellers sleepy. In an absurd moment of carelessness, which they still don’t understand, Asdrúbal and his companion got in. They travelled for about half an hour until, a few metres from the urban area of Nueva Villa del Aburrá, the taxi slowed down to turn a corner.

At that moment Asdrúbal saw two men waiting for him on a motor bike, taking a close look at the one who began firing: he was about 25, with a military haircut, brown skin, wearing white trousers.

The shots smashed the rear window. Asdrúbal felt a bullet graze his jaw, and threw himself across the seat, surprising his companion who hadn’t realised what was happening. Two other shots hit him: one in the back and one in the groin. The assassins left at high speed when a security guard opened fire on them. Asdrúbal was taken to the Rosario Clinic, where he hovered between life and death for hours. The assassins followed him there, and despite strong security, the sense of siege was so strong that the hospital managers advised he should be moved, because the doctors were receiving threats. The then Health Secretary of Antioch province, Antonio Roldán Betancur – who was later assassinated with a car bomb while he was Governor – made a small plane available with 30 men as an escort to take him to the airport of Olaya Herrera, from where he was transferred to Bogotá.

He remained there recovering in the Palermo Clinic until May 19th, when he took a flight to the UK, with the help of Amnesty International, leaving behind, against his will, in pain and anger, his family, his work, his country, his life.

Since then almost 2 decades passed, and the complications brought on by the attack were undeniable and fatal. But he was a stubborn fighter: he worked for Amnesty International took part in governmental organizations and NGOs in Europe involved in the human rights struggle in Colombia.

And he participated in international campaigns on the issues, such as the well-known Urabá the Bitter Banana. Between 1991 and 1992 he was an advisor in the peace dialogues between the Government and the Simón Bolívar Guerilla Coordinator, representing the FARC, ELN and EPL, in Caracas, Venezuela and Tlaxcala, Mexico.

After what happened and with the stigmatization of his country, anyone would expect him to give up, but he considered that “Colombia needs and demands a negotiated political solution to its armed conflict. This is because the insurgents have the will and the commitment to reach agreements that can end the conflict, a settlement that would allow the causes that gave rise to it to be overcome. Those of us who believe that Colombia needs peace and social justice have the right and the duty to commit ourselves to these alternatives, which are more than a simple demobilisation of the guerrillas.”


To further this approach he travelled across Europe, as an invited speaker at Unesco discussions, at meetings about peace in Colombia, and at international conferences on the use of anti-personnel mines; he also was honoured by the Italian Government for his indomitable struggle in defence of human rights, and the rights of workers.

But he was also concerned with his own case: returning to Colombia and getting his life back there.

The investigation was started on the same day as the attack, by the 28th Court of Criminal Instruction, but 17 years later nothing has happened, and when the International Labour Organisation asked the Government for a progress report, it replied that they were seeking new information about the crime.

While he was in London he presented a demand for Direct Reparation and Compliance against the Colombian state, to the Administrative Disputes Tribunal of Antioch, seeking compensation for his material losses and damage to his reputation.

But the verdict went against him, on the grounds that he should have informed the police about all his movements in order for them to guarantee his protection. This judgement ignored the fact that the risks he was exposed to were immediate and public, ignored the fact that he had asked for protection through lawyers’ organisations and Amnesty International, and that the threats against him had been made known in the media.

He appealed against the verdict and the wait for a decision was equally long.

For that reason, in 1998 he decided to present his case to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations (HRC), against the Colombian State, asking them to offer him guarantees for safe return to the country. But above all it was: “to break the impunity which existed for practically all political crimes. Because the case has not move forward; because exile should only be a temporary situation; because I have been condemned to live in exile and nobody can be sentenced to live permanently outside their country of origin”, he said.

The HRC delivered their verdict on March 25th 2001: it found the Colombian State responsible for not adopting, or being ‘unable to adopt adequate measures to guarantee him the right to personal security’; for not undertaking any investigation to identify and punish those responsible for the attack; for not guaranteeing him the right to reside again in his country; and for violating the International Agreement on Civil and Political Rights.

As a result the HRC called on the Colombian State to guarantee the lawyer his return to Colombia, his professional and social life, and compensation for the losses he had suffered.

But the Colombian State refused to comply with the Committee’s verdict, and he began a Case for Protection before the Superior Tribunal for the Judicial District of Bogotá.

Luis asdrubal jimenezThis case was reviewed by the Constitutional Court…

And so between one legal action and another, nothing happened, and then Asdrúbal was overtaken by a fatal suffering that was neither slow nor kind. He died from a cancer that was diagnosed in its final stage. He died in exile: in London, in a bed in a hospice for terminally ill patients. He died without ever hearing the final outcome of his case, which was delivered a short time later.

The Colombian State agreed to offer him protection and to compensate him for having had to leave his country. A useless verdict, that was late, deliberately late.

(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email: – Photos: Nathan Raia / The Prisma

NOTE:  This text was included in the Anthology of “Cronistas Bogotanos”, a book printed by Editorial Los Conjurados. The publication of this article is a tribute to this lawyer and human rights defender, exiled in London and known for his struggle on behalf of immigrants. Jimenez died of cancer almost 15 years ago.



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