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Two acquitted in killing of a Teamster organizer
A murder left unsolved

March 31, 2006 | Page 8

THE MYSTERIOUS death of Teamster organizer Jose Gilberto Soto remains unsolved after two of the three suspects charged in his murder plot were acquitted in El Salvador on February 18. Immediately following verdict, the U.S.-based International Brotherhood of Teamsters issued a statement, on behalf of Teamster General President James P. Hoffa, calling for a renewed investigation of Soto's death.

"It has been our longstanding belief that the government of El Salvador made an unconscionable rush to judgment regarding the murder of our official representative. We received assurances that the Salvadoran government would conduct an objective, open-ended inquiry. That never happened.

"The behavior of the Salvadoran government officials in this case appears to be an attempt to cover up or deflect attention from the instigators of this heinous crime or perhaps to avoid prosecuting parties who were determined to keep unions from establishing a foothold in El Salvador's Acajutla port," declared Hoffa.

"I call upon President Elias Antonio Saca Gonzalez to reopen this case, assign the best investigators and follow through until the perpetrators are brought to justice, whoever they may be."

Gilberto Soto was an organizer with the Teamsters Port division in the Northeastern United States, primarily focusing on the organizing of non-union truck drivers who shuttle most of the cargo in and out of America's ports. While much of the recent and overwhelmingly racist debate has focused around the non-U.S. companies that operate U.S. ports, there has been a careful effort to avoid any discussion of the many decades-long union-busting campaign on the waterfront.

Soto was involved in a major effort by several unions, led by the Teamsters, to organize the tens of thousands of waterfront workers in the U.S. The major target of Soto's organizing campaign was the Danish shipping giant Maersk, whose name appears on containers that are carried by truck drivers across most of North America and has offices or representatives in over 100 countries.

Maersk has a long and rotten record in the region, especially in El Salvador. In 2001, Maersk fired and blacklisted over 100 drivers in a vicious union-busting campaign. Maersk controls 80 percent of the container shipping market in El Salvador.

In 2003, Soto began working with the Danish General Workers Union to document violations of worker rights by Maersk, particularly, in Central America. Soto had just arrived in El Salvador in November 2004 to begin his organizing work when he was murdered by two gunmen, according to witnesses, outside his mother's home in Usulatan, 60 miles from the capital city of San Salvador. He had meetings planned with Maersk truck drivers and other port workers as well as with labor officials in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras.

Maersk has never been a serious focus of any investigation into Soto's death, despite having a long-documented role in union busting in Central America and its extensive business and political connections in the region. The initial response of the Salvadoran police, historically involved in the death squad killings of trade unionists and leftists, was a predictable attempt at a cover-up.

A month following Soto's death, the Salvadoran police arrested and charged Soto's 59-year-old mother-in-law, Rosa Elva Zelaya, with organizing his murder. The Salvadoran police paraded Elva Zelaya and the three men she is accused of hiring in the alleged murder plot in front of reporters and declared that the case was "solved." Rosa Zelaya has publicly denied any role in Soto's murder. The Salvadoran police argued that Soto's death was the result of a "family dispute."

A month after the killing, Beatrice Alamanni de Carrillo, the director of the Salvadoran Office for the Defense of Human Rights, issued a report saying that the suspects were tortured and the charges were trumped-up.

She called the arrests a publicity stunt to mask the fact that authorities never investigated whether Soto's union activities led to his killing, and said that witnesses were coerced into naming Zelaya de Ortiz, along with alleged gunmen Herbert Joel Gomez and Santos Sanchez Ayala. Zelaya de Ortiz and Ayala were found not guilty on February 18, while Gomez was convicted of providing the weapon.

After an initial flurry of activity by the Teamsters to uncover the circumstances of Gilberto Soto's death, the union has failed to organize anything approaching a serious campaign to put pressure on what any sensible person would recognize as the two main suspects in the case: the Salvadoran police and Maersk.

In sharp contrast, the Teamsters joined in the racist campaign to stop the transfer of operating rights of six U.S. ports to Dubai with pickets across the country. The Teamsters also missed a huge opportunity to publicize Soto's case by not participating in the 200,000-strong "mega-march" for immigrants rights in Chicago on March 10.

As Socialist Worker argued in a previously published article: "If Gilberto Soto's killers and their corporate masters are ever to be brought to justice a vigorous international campaign must be built that forces the Salvadoran government and Maersk to come clean."
Joe Allen, Chicago

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