Killed for belonging to a union family: Victor Manuel Crespo Puerto, elderly father of port worker union leader Victor Crespo, was assassinated on February 27 outside his home in Honduras. Crespo’s mother was injured in the attack that followed a series of death threats which arrived because Crespo was advocating for union workers at the container facility controlled by ICTSI.
International Container Terminal Services Incorporated (ICTSI) – the rogue employer responsible for flagrant contract violations at the Port of Portland – is now expanding operations in Central America where murder, military repression, death threats and anti-union attacks are accompanying the firm’s expansion.
Labor leader attacked
The family of Honduran dockworker union leader, Victor Crespo, became the latest assassination target on January 27 when an armed assailant murdered Crespo’s father and injured his mother by running them over with a stolen truck in an attack outside the family home. Other Crespo family members narrowly escaped death and injury. Victor Crespo and his family have faced death threats because of his efforts to help workers at Puerto Cortés, a newly privatized operation container terminal that was recently taken-over by ICTSI.
An October 2013 article in The Dispatcher explained how members of the Honduran labor union (SGTM) encountered violent thugs, military forces and death threats after seeking union rights for workers. ICTSI secured a lucrative 30-year contract last February to operate the port through their OPC subsidiary. The company expects volumes could reach 600,000 containers, shipped to and from Honduras and neighboring countries.
Brush with death squads
By last September, SGTM General Secretary Victor Crespo had made no progress reaching a contract but he did begin receiving death threats. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by armed thugs who broke into his home during the early morning hours. The attack was foiled at the last minute by concerned neighbors who sounded the alarm, allowing Crespo to slip away with his life. After the foiled attack, Crespo received critical help from the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), who made arrangements to try and protect him from the death squads.
ICTSI’s privatization play
ICTSI is a player in the growing effort to privatize formerly-public ports in the developing world. Privatization efforts across the globe are being aided by the World Bank, wealthy investors, and “free trade” agreements that undermine public ownership and ease private takeovers. Countries wishing to invest and improve their public ports quickly discover that access to investment capital is difficult to secure – but easy to get if government officials agree to privatize.
When public assets are sold to private owners, workers and their unions are usually left behind. The new private employers promote “yellow” or “company” unions that don’t challenge the new owners and prevent workers from creating democratic trade unions.
Super profits for privatizers
Outside investors and terminal operators stand to make fortunes when ports and other public assets are privatized. Investors who make these deals spend time courting officials in countries they target – often with support and assistance from the U.S. State and Commerce Departments – and they are usually willing and expected to share some of their windfall profits with local politicians, business leaders, police and military officials who facilitate the privatization process.
Who wants to be a billionaire?
The privatization frenzy that took place in Mexico during the 1990’s serves as an example – and powerful motivator – for those wishing to make similar fortunes today in countries like Honduras. When Mexico’s public-owned telephone system and other public assets were sold to private investors as part of the “reforms” surrounding the NAFTA free trade agreement, it created new millionaires and billionaires, including one of the world’s richest men – Carlos Slim – who now commands a fortune worth $72 billion dollars, putting him on par with Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates.
Layoffs & lower pay for workers
When ICTSI was celebrating their new deal giving them 30-year control over Puerto Cortés, the Honduran state-owned port operator (Empresa Nacional Portuaria or “ENP”) began dismissing hundreds of public port workers without advance notice. Reaction to the terminations angered other port workers and union members across the country who responded with solidarity actions, marches and strikes. In December 2013, the government sent armed troops to threaten port workers who declared they would resist the intimidation until the nation’s president or officials agreed to help their union secure jobs at ICTSI.
Military confronts workers
As The Dispatcher was going to press in January, armed forces continued to occupy Puerto Cortés. ITF’s Honduran affiliate that represents public port workers, Sindicatos de Trabajadores de la Empresa Nacional Portuaria (SITRAENP) has been promised by the government to expect more productive negotiations with ENP, the nation’s public port agency. Victor Crespo and SGTM union members have also heard from Honduran government officials that ICTSI made a similar commitment to meaningful negotiations with their union. But neither union has been able to secure a fair contract and the sincerity of negotiations remains in doubt.
U.S. military involvement
Honduras has been heavily influenced during the past century by U.S. corporations, military forces, CIA operatives and State Department officials. Puerto Cortés, now run by ICTSI, was originally built to serve U.S. banana corporations, including the United Fruit Company (branded as “Chaquita”) that controlled Honduras for nearly a century, giving rise to the term “Banana Republic.” The U.S. installed several right-wing, anti-union governments and engaged in a massive military buildup during Ronald Reagan’s secret and illegal war during the 1980’s that was waged against pro-union rebels in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Massacre feared possible
The ITF is concerned that the Honduran government’s latest military intervention at Puerto Cortés and their refusal to address worker concerns could result in a massacre, and has called for solidarity actions worldwide to protect workers in case negotiations fail. On December 4, 2013, the ITF sent a letter to Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, protesting the violation of port workers’ rights and urging him to help facilitate a prompt and fair settlement. Following the assassination of Crespo’s father, the ITF took other diplomatic and solidarity initiatives to help.
Similar conflicts in Costa Rica
Dispatcher readers may recall a similar struggle by dockworkers in Costa Rica that also involved privatization (see articles in March, June and August of 2010). Costa Rica’s public ports of Limón and Moin were privatization targets, following a $72 million loan from the World Bank to “modernize” both sites. When the SINTRAJAP dockworkers union refused to go along, the government ordered police to break into the union headquarters at 4:30 am on May 28, 2010, and take over the building.
When the union continued to resist, the government orchestrated a sham election in January 2011 to replace the democratically-elected union leadership with a new team of government puppets. Costa Rica’s Constitutional Court later reversed the government’s illegal ouster of SINTRAJAP union officials in August of 2011.
The ILWU supported SINTRAJAP with letters from International President McEllrath to President Obama and encouraged 25 members of Congress to express concerns to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The ILWU hosted a SINTRAJAP delegation at the April, 2010 Longshore Caucus in Long Beach, and placed several full-page advertisements in major Costa Rican newspapers to educate citizens about the undemocratic actions taken by their government leaders.
Resistance by SINTRAJAP workers and international solidarity put government officials on the defensive; by mid-2011 press reports noted the government had “back-tracked” on the privatization scheme which had been put “on hold indefinitely.” However, as of 2014, the project appears to be moving forward after the government quickly granted a monopoly container concession to APM, which is slated to begin operations in three years, which will doom the public port.
Port workers and their union leaders continue to receive threats – and worse – from those advocating Costa Rica’s privatization scheme. Last year, a former union leader was murdered after he actively opposed the new private terminal location because it would destroy a sea turtle sanctuary. Police have not arrested or charged anyone for the crime.
ICTSI moves into El Salvador
In December of 2013, El Salvador’s port authority (CEPA) announced they had pre-selected ICTSI and three other companies to submit bids in April, 2014 for a 30-year private concession agreement to manage the country’s newest port of La Unión on the Pacific coast.
The modern, multi-use container terminal was just completed in 2009. The public agency initially operated the port with four, second-hand rubber-tire gantry cranes that cost $4.4 million, and planned to purchase more equipment to boost capacity to 300,000 containers a year. The privatization plan asks ICTSI and other bidders to invest $30 million in the first ten years of operations, enabling the terminal to handle 1 million containers a year.
El Salvador is the smallest, most densely populated and a highly industrialized country in Central America. During the 1980’s, the nation was torn apart by a bitter civil war that killed 75,000 residents, sparked by inequality between a handful of wealthy elites (backed by the U.S. military) who controlled the government and business, while the vast majority of Salvadorians lived then and now, in poverty. El Salvador has one of the world’s highest murder rates, a distinction they share with Honduras.
“Corporations that privatize often act like modern-day pirates who attack workers and communities for profit,” said ILWU International Vice President Ray Familathe. “Companies like ICTSI have an agenda of plunder and profit that seems to spawn violence and repression. That has to be challenged in Central America, Portland or wherever they try to take advantage.”