The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Teamsters organizer murdered in El Salvador

Jan 10, 2005

Two months ago, on November 5, an organizer from the U.S. Teamsters union was shot and killed while he was visiting his mother in Usulutan, El Salvador. The shooting was apparently a planned assassination: the three shooters, who had been waiting for Jose Gilberto Soto, shot him when he stepped out of the house and then ran away.

Soto, who emigrated to the U.S. 30 years ago, had gone back on union business. He was scheduled to meet with truckers from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua the following day. The meeting was part of an international organizing effort among U.S. and Central American truckers who often work for the same shipping companies.

Salvadoran authorities first called the killing a random street crime. The attackers, however, had not even attempted to rob Soto. Then, in early December, the Salvadoran police arrested Soto's mother-in-law, claiming she had contracted to have Soto killed. According to El Salvador's top human rights official, Beatrice de Carrillo, the case was built entirely on statements from unnamed witnesses, and the police have never investigated the most likely cause of murder: to intimidate truckers and sabotage their organizing effort.

It is not uncommon for governments and bosses to resort to naked violence against unionists. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, about 100 union activists are murdered every year, and hundreds of others receive credible death threats. Most of these incidents are reported in Latin America.

El Salvador has its own history of anti-union violence. During the civil war between the government and the rebel FMLN in the 1980s, more that 5000 labor activists were assassinated by death squads organized by the government and big bosses. The civil war ended in 1992 when the government and FMLN signed a peace accord. The number of assassinations may have gone down since then, but not the bosses' hostility and attacks against unions. In fact, since 1992, the proportion of unionized workers in El Salvador has gone down drastically, from 15% to 5%.

Maersk, the main shipping company targeted by the truckers' organizing campaign, has a history of bullying union organizers. In El Salvador, Maersk subsidiary Bridge Terminal Transport fired 100 drivers when they tried to organize a union three years ago, calling the drivers thugs and terrorists. In 2000, after speaking at a rally protesting Pacific Rim Transport, another Maersk subsidiary, Oakland, California trucker Naim Sharifi had his contract cancelled by the company. He was subsequently called a "terrorist," too.

If Soto was killed by the bosses, as it seems likely, it wouldn't be the first such murder. No matter how much the bosses denounce "class warfare," they have never been shy about using open violence against workers in their quest to maximize their profits.