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Cablegate: Banana Workers Union Leader Murdered

VZCZCXYZ0005
RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHGT #2172/01 3041709
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 311709Z OCT 07
FM AMEMBASSY GUATEMALA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 4236
INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE
RUEHC/DEPT OF LABOR WASHDC

UNCLAS GUATEMALA 002172

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

DEPT FOR WHA/CEN, DRL/AWH, DRL/ILCSR
DOL FOR CROMERO, PCHURCH, LBUFFO

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ELAB KCRM PHUM KJUS KDEM PGOV GT
SUBJECT: BANANA WORKERS UNION LEADER MURDERED

This is sensitive but unclassified. Protect accordingly.

1. (SBU) Summary: Banana workers union leader Marco Tulio Ramirez Portela was murdered on September 23 by unidentified
assailants on a farm in Los Amates, Izabal owned by Bandegua,
a subsidiary of Del Monte. Embassy Labor Officer met with SITRABI leaders and Bandegua management October 1-2 to discuss the murder, ongoing threats against the union, and security for Bandegua workers and their families. SITRABI suggested that the killing may be related to Ramirez' union activities, and expressed concerns over increased threats and the lack of security. Bandegua executives believed that the murder was a politically motivated killing, as investigations conducted by the Public Ministry indicate. Bandegua and SITRABI agreed to work together to increase security for the workers. Ambassador raised the case with the Attorney
General and Minister of Government. End summary.

Murder of Union Leader
----------------------
2. (U) Banana workers union leader Marco Ramirez, 43, was
murdered in the early morning of September 23 on a banana
farm on the private property of Bandegua, a subsidiary of transnational Del Monte Fresh Produce Company, in Los Amates, Izabal in eastern Guatemala. He was reportedly shot by four unidentified, masked assailants on two motorcycles about 100 meters from his house as he was leaving for work. Ramirez was the brother of the Secretary General of the Banana Workers Union of Izabal (SITRABI). He served as Secretary of Culture and Sports on SITRABI's Executive Committee, and as union sub-section leader of Yuma Farm where he lived and worked.

3. (U) Embassy Laboff visited Izabal October 1-2 to meet with SITRABI and Bandegua to discuss the murder, continuing threats and intimidation of union leaders, and security for the banana workers and their families. Laboff also met with the victim's spouse, visited the crime scene and a banana factory at Yuma Farm, and spoke with the factory union leader, Bandegua site manager, and banana workers.

SITRABI's View
--------------
4. (SBU) SITRABI leaders expressed concerns that the threats
and intimidation have not ceased but increased after the murder. They reported that armed persons on motorcycles and in vehicles have been circling the residential areas of the farms and firing their guns to intimidate union leaders and workers.

5. (SBU) SITRABI leaders and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center Representative for Central America believe the murder was related to Ramirez' union activities. According to SITRABI, Ramirez had problems with Bandegua management. He had been subject to repeated threats of termination over the past year as well as accusations by management of sabotaging the company's production and inciting illegal work stoppages. On the day prior to the murder, a vehicle reportedly driven by an individual affiliated with a local organized crime family was seen in front of Ramirez' house and was again seen just minutes prior to his murder. Also on the day prior to the murder, the "second wife" of Bandegua's Labor Relations Manager was reportedly killed in the same manner as Ramirez. SITRABI believed the killing was a warning to the Labor
Relations Manager to be tougher with the union.

6. (SBU) SITRABI Secretary General Noe Ramirez acknowledged
that the killing could also be related to politics. His brother had served as an UNE election monitor at a voting center in Los Amates on September 9. The UNE candidate won Qcenter in Los Amates on September 9. The UNE candidate won the mayoral race over the Unionista candidate, who was widely alleged to be supported by a local organized crime family. Later the same day as Ramirez' murder, the body of an UNE activist was reportedly found riddled with bullets on a Bandegua farm in Los Amates.

Bandegua's View
---------------
7. (SBU) Bandegua executives believe the killing was linked to politics. General Manager Marco Antonio Garcia asserted that it was common knowledge, even among the victim's co-workers, that the killing was politically motivated. He claimed that workers, and perhaps even SITRABI's leaders, know who actually murdered Ramirez but were reluctant to make any accusations other than against Bandegua. Workers have mentioned that Ramirez had problems with individuals involved in politics and that one of those individuals could have killed him. According to Garcia, it was well known in the community that Ramirez drank and talked too much, and insulted political candidates when under the influence of
alcohol.

8. (SBU) Garcia shared SITRABI's concerns over security, noting that many Bandegua administrators and superintendents also live on the farms among the workers. He pointed out that the area is extremely dangerous due to narcotrafficking and that there have been several murders. Bandegua has a private security firm that guards the two vehicle access entry gates to its property and registers vehicles that enter the premises. However, according to Garcia, Bandegua does not have direct control over the guards and the system is not foolproof, especially given the general state of violence in Guatemala. Garcia agreed to work with the union on enhancing security for Bandegua workers and their families, and
proposed a meeting with the union to specifically address security issues.

9. (SBU) Garcia asserted that the policy of Bandegua and Del Monte is zero tolerance for violence, and that Bandegua was not involved in the murder or intimidation of SITRABI leaders. He stressed that Bandegua was cooperating fully with the Public Ministry and other authorities in the murder investigation. Bandegua has also presented a formal complaint to the Public Ministry requesting a thorough investigation of the murder and urging that those responsible be held accountable.

Embassy Action
--------------
10. (SBU) Ambassador met with the AFL-CIO Central American
Representative and raised the case with Minister of Government Torrebiarte and Attorney General Florido. Torrebiarte told Ambassador on October 24 that she was aware of the case and that the National Civil Police's special investigative unit for crimes against journalists and unionists was looking into it.

11. (SBU) In response to raising the matter with Attorney General Florido, Ambassador received a letter October 24 from the Public Ministry, stating that investigations to date support a preliminary hypothesis that the killing was related to events on September 9. According to the Public Ministry, investigations revealed that Ramirez had problems at a voting center on election day when a representative of another political party arrived with armed men to intimidate him.

Comment
-------
12. (SBU) This murder is the latest of several murders of union leaders over the past year, and a grim reminder of the culture of impunity and violence that affects all Guatemalans. The motives for this murder remain unclear. Embassy has spoken with the union, management, and government officials and has reason to doubt that the killing was related to the victim's union activities or that it involved
Bandegua. Embassy is following this case closely and has pressed authorities at the highest level of government to thoroughly investigate this murder and review the actions of security force members in the area.
Derham

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