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Teamsters organizer murdered in El Salvador

By Joe Allen | December 3, 2004 | Page 12

GILBERTO SOTO, an organizer for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was assassinated November 5 in El Salvador, where he was building links with Central American port workers.

Soto was killed by two gunmen outside his mother's house in Usulutan, 60 miles from the capital city of San Salvador.

He was an organizer with the Teamsters Port Division in New Jersey and had spent the last several years in a campaign to organize port workers, mostly drivers, in the Northeastern U.S. A year ago, he began working with the Danish General Workers Union to document violations of worker rights by Maersk, one of the largest shipping companies in the world.

Maersk has a long and rotten record in El Salvador. In 2001, for example, the company fired and blacklisted over 100 drivers in a vicious union-busting campaign.

Soto had just arrived in El Salvador to begin his organizing work when he was assassinated. He had planned meetings with port workers who drive trucks for Maersk, and with labor officials in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras.

El Salvador's right-wing death squads--made up of members of the police and military--have a bloody history of harassing and killing trade unionists at the behest of the richest employers. It is likely that Soto was murdered by such a group.

"We need an investigation," says Soto's sister Areli, who was inside the house when her brother was killed. "This murder did not just happen. There is something behind this. We demand justice in this country where there is so little justice."

Teamster President James P. Hoffa and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney met with the El Salvador's ambassador to the U.S. to demand that Soto's killers be brought to justice. "We told the ambassador of our deep concern about the lack of any type of investigation," Hoffa told the New York Times. "We're concerned that Gilberto Soto was murdered because of his intention to meet with labor leaders and truck drivers in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras."

The Teamsters, along with the International Longshoremen's Association and International Longshore and Warehouse Union, have offered a $75,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Soto's killers.

The most likely source of information is his longtime foe--the Copenhagen-based shipping giant Maersk.

Maersk's cargo containers on the back of trucks are a common sight in most U.S. cities. Maersk has offices or is represented in 100 countries around the world. Fifty-three of the company's carriers fly the U.S. flag. It controls 80 percent of the container shipping market in El Salvador.

Maersk's U.S. director Charles O'Connor said that the company was opening its own "independent investigation" into Soto's murder, in cooperation with Salvadoran officials. O'Connor then said, "We don't know Gilberto Soto."

Such an obvious lie will hopefully come back to haunt Maersk in the weeks ahead.

The Teamsters dismissed Maersk's "independent" investigation. "Four years ago, Maersk officials slandered port truck drivers in El Salvador who were seeking union contracts with their Central American trucking operation, calling them 'terrorists and thugs,'" said Chuck Mack, director of the Teamsters Port Division. "Three years ago, they floated the rumor that the leader of a port truck driver union campaign at Maersk's Oakland, Calif., trucking subsidiary, Pacific Rim Transport, Inc., was a terrorist agent of the Taliban."

However, the Teamsters for the moment seem satisfied to leave the investigation into Soto's murder in the hands of the Salvadoran government. "This murder investigation is best left to the Salvadoran authorities, who have indicated their willingness to accept assistance from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies," Mack said. "If the Salvadoran police engage in a cover-up, we will seek assistance of human rights organizations with a track record of integrity of and independence."

But a cover-up is the predictable first move by Salvadoran police. They have already tried to smear Soto by claiming that his death was "gang- or drug-related"--a charge vigorously rebutted by Gilberto Soto's family.

Those who publicized Soto's killing in El Savador have faced harassment and intimidation. For example, the Center for Labor Studies and Support, a Salvadoran labor rights group, had their offices trashed and its computers stolen.

The potential role of U.S. government intelligence agencies in any investigation into Soto's murder makes it even less likely that his killer will be found--given the extensive ties between the Pentagon and CIA and the Salvadoran military and police. The first death squad in El Salvador was set up by the Green Berets and the CIA in 1962, and the relationship continues to this day.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in El Salvador in November handing out medals and congratulating members of Salvadoran military for their role in the disastrous occupation of Iraq. Rumsfeld endorsed the U.S. role in El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s--where 80,000 people were killed, mostly by government forces or death squads connected to the military--as a model for the occupation of Iraq.

Amnesty International reports that death squad activity fell off after the 1992 signing of a peace treaty that ended El Salvador's civil war, but revived in the mid to late 1990s. Repression against union activists has increased since the creation of the Central American Free Trade Zone, with El Salvador promoting itself as a cheap source of cheap, non-union labor.

Soto emigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1975. He was an active supporter of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, which led an ultimately unsuccessful struggle for power against El Salvador's military dictatorship in the 1980s. He was also active in the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), which opposed U.S. intervention in El Salvador's civil war during the same period.

Soto became the first Latino president of a Teamster local in New Jersey in 1993. From 1994 to 2000, he was an organizer with the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees. He then returned to Teamster first as a business agent, then as an organizer for the Teamster Port Division.

Soto was one day short of his 50th birthday when he was assassinated, and leaves behind a wife and three children. His killers will be brought to justice only if a vigorous international campaign brings pressure on the Salvadoran government.

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