Bananaland

Gustavo Murillo

This interview was recorded on May 17, 2002 with Gustavo Murillo, a worker at the Los Alamos Plantation in Ecuador, the day after two attacks against striking workers.

Green Gold interviews courtesy of Jann Nimmo. Used with permission & edited for clarity
Visit her project: greengold.org.uk

My name is Gustavo Murillo. I was born in the city of Guayaquil on March 25, 1977. I am a resilient, hard-working person. At the age of 12, I lost my mother. I left home to work in order to look after my grandmother. I live with her and my uncle Vicente. I’ve worked since the age of 7 or 8, but at 12 I started working full-time. You could say that I’ve done a bit of everything– I’ve worked in a bakery, as a builder’s helper– but I have always been honest and hard-working.

I started working at the Los Alamos plantation four years ago with the hope that this would bring better days for my family. I had goals and dreams, which today are in ruins. They’ve just fallen over like a tower of playing cards. I never thought that I’d say this, but what’s happened over the last few days has hurt me inside. I’m emotional and I don’t feel psychologically well. Sometimes I feel like running out and screaming at the top of my lungs. I don’t believe that there’s anywhere on earth where they treat human beings like they have treated us.

I want this to serve as a lesson for many people– I hope that the generations to come don’t make the same mistakes, and that things begin to change. I hope that there will be better days than those we’ve just had. I have nothing to complain about with respect to my family, at least I have them, because I’ve always said that I have more than I deserve– an incredible grandmother and an uncle who has gone out of his way for me. I owe both of them so much; part of who I am, I owe to them.

The experiences that we have had these last few days at Los Alamos will not knock us down. We trusted in our employer Álvaro Noboa [the plantation owner and one of the wealthiest men in Ecuador], and you’ve seen how he has repaid us: at gunpoint, with bullets, with aggression, violating the fundamental human rights of every worker. We are helpless because Álvaro Noboa has economic resources. He can do anything he wishes in this country and no one can stop him. How can you swim against his tide? But we’re here, still on our feet and fighting, trying to change things.

Right now, those who get rich do so at the expense of the poor and the humble. And how do they pay the people they exploit? With bullets, sacking them from their jobs. They don’t even give them tools to work. They mistreat them physically, verbally, and psychologically and do not respect human rights.

We’re not against those who have wealth if they’ve earned it. To be rich isn’t bad in itself when it’s a fortune that’s been earned through someone’s efforts and hard work. What is immoral is getting rich on the backs of the poor. We’re not criticizing the rich, but we want them to realize that what they have, they have because the poor work for them to possess it. They have to realize this, and be more conscious of it, and treat us better. We want better treatment for the women of Ecuador, for the Ecuadorian children, the children who work on the banana plantations.

You mentioned the poor treatment of Ecuadorian workers. We know what happened on the Los Alamos plantation. Could you tell us more about that situation?

When I started working here I had high hopes of better days to come, but now I’ve lived and breathed the reality of my people. [We are] hard-working, modest people; people who are here because they need to bring the bread home. [We] work in terrible conditions– conditions in which no human being should have to work. [We] don’t have uniforms, the food is scarce and isn’t enough to sustain people who do this kind of work. With respect to health, there is no specialized doctor. There are no guarantees for the workers on this plantation, and that’s the truth. Low wages, bad food, no healthcare, no tools for work, abuse by the bosses. All this has accumulated, bit by bit.

The workers of Los Alamos can no longer bear any more of this and we’ve reacted, but we’ve reacted peacefully. Señor Álvaro Noboa hasn’t. He’s using violence, but we’re not. We are peaceful people, good people, modest people. People who can walk down the street with their heads held high, proud of who they are; human beings, Ecuadorians. Part of what Noboa has gained is thanks to the efforts of these people. It’s certain that we have benefited from the company, but the company has paid us an absurdly low wage. The company can boast and say, “Yes, the workers have benefited”– but go and investigate this. We don’t even have social security. They don’t pay us social security even though they discount it from our wage.

About three months ago, we decided to take action and stop this abuse. That’s when we first organized the trade union and Señor Noboa hasn’t liked it one bit. People from Los Alamos stopped working and peacefully went on strike. All activities on the banana plantation ceased. I’d never thought about going on strike since I believe that if you want to earn money you have to work, but these people changed me- they made me see reality. If you don’t put pressure this way, things will never change.

I have compañeros [friends, co-workers] who have been here for 12 to 15 years, and according to our Labour Code should have left the company well remunerated. What has he done? He has given them an absurdly low amount. Just enough so that you don’t go away empty-handed. Our redundancy pay isn’t in accordance with the law and this is one of the reasons we have risen up. I tell you, this continual abuse has filled the glass drop by drop, day after day, month after month, year after year. And on May 16th, 2002 something happened that changed many of our lives.

We had been on strike for 10 days. We had peacefully taken over the plantation. We guarded the place ourselves, looked after our own physical integrity and that of our compañeros, and we took good care of the company’s property. Yes, we formed the trade union, but that’s not to say that we were using it as a shield to destroy, damage or assault like they have done to us. We want the trade union to serve as a mediator between owner and employee, to be an observer, and when it has to act in the favour of the owners then it should do so. And if it has to act in favour of the workers, it should do that too. We want a just and impartial trade union. We don’t wish ill on the company– we want the company to grow, but in order for the company to grow, we have to grow too.

Back to the original subject, I’m going to tell you what happened in the early hours of the 16th. I still have it all clearly in my head– it’ll be a long time before I recover from this. The tears flow when I think of it. I cry not just because I’m angry but through indignation at the degree of violence and at the total impunity with which it has been committed.

We were on guard, some of us calmly sleeping in our rooms, when masked, armed men burst in aggressively. They got us out of our rooms, without giving us a chance to get dressed, pushing and shoving, assaulting us physically and verbally.They mistreated and humiliated us, and for what reason? For being ordinary workers who wanted better lives for their families. They made us kneel down and didn’t let us see their faces. Then they put us in pick-up trucks– there were dozens of us in these pick-ups, one on top of the other. It’s one thing for someone to tell you this but it’s another to have actually experienced it. One on top of the other, the way I would throw one sack on top of another, without any consideration and without restraint. They took us to a building where they shut us in, threw water and tear gas on us, insulted and harassed us. Later they put us in a banana truck. After 10 minutes, the air began running out. They told us they were going to take our lives. Where had these men come from? They had been sent on the orders of our dear employer.

They took my roommate, Juan Carlos Cano. I don’t know where he is or if he’s disappeared– he was one of those who were put into the banana truck. They were going to take us in this truck to an unknown destination, but some of our compañeros who had escaped this aggression alerted the local police and a patrol car turned up. The masked men had to free us, so they let us go in the middle of the plantation.

We had no weapons, only armed with our hands and with the truth. We were waiting for a peaceful solution, and they were armed to the teeth. Pick-ups arrived, supplying them with more weapons. Where had these come from? From those in charge– our bosses, our supervisors. They are people we see every day and whom we had held in consideration. These people at one time gave us a smile, but they betrayed us, they sold us.

Guillermo Touma, a lawyer for Los Alamos workers, was present. He arrived with some journalists and they confirmed that a compañero, Mauro Romero, had been shot. He had paid with his blood for being a brave man.

There were many other compañeros wounded in the early hours, women sexually harassed, their clothes ripped and stolen. Those masked men robbed our camps and many of our belongings had disappeared.

There was a bus inside the gateway which the armed men used as cover and started shooting without compassion or pity, unconcerned for the innocent women and children present. Their objective was to get us out of there. When we left, they celebrated. Meanwhile, a compañero, Martin Clavijo, was bleeding on the ground.

The police reinforcements who had been called earlier never arrived. Maybe they couldn’t find the road, or they didn’t hear the call. They never arrived to support or protect us. We took the injured to [the town of] Naranjal as fast as we could, and from there on to Guayaquil. Back at the camp, our compañeros were angry and indignant and proceeded to block a main road between two major cities. Blocking a road like this is illegal, but we were left with no other option. One way or another, we had to let the country know what was happening.

We arrived in the city of Guayaquil and went straight to the hospital. Of the 3 injured, 2 were released but Martin Clavijo had to stay hospitalized. I stayed with him all night. I didn’t sleep and hadn’t slept the night before– who would be able to sleep after all that? I went two nights without sleep or food. In the morning, Clavijo’s situation was serious and he needed surgery.

My cousin arrived and we went home. I cried like I’d never cried before, remembering those sad moments in the early hours, that madrugada de terror [dawn of terror] for so many people. There were bullets and we felt pain. A lot of blood flowed. The person that I love most, my grandmother, had no idea what had happened. She said, “Although you’ve lost everything, and although you now have nothing left from all that you’ve worked for, you are alive. And there is hope of carrying on”. This gave me the strength to pull myself backtogether. I washed, dressed, and said to myself, “You’re starting again. My compañeros are waiting for me and this doesn’t end here.”

Let’s see if those in charge of our country can see the need for change. We’re not going to stop this abuse overnight, but the time has come to put an end to it. Things are going to change, not because the company wants it to but because it’s what the people are asking for, and when the people stop, everything stops. This situation is one that should be known around the world because the national press is biased and our complaints have fallen on deaf ears. We are on our knees, begging, because when we were standing they didn’t listen to us. Please tell the world and don’t let any more innocent blood flow.

I would love to have been able to speak with Noboa and ask him some questions. Would he have put his hand over his heart before answering me? Would he have put himself in our place? How would he like it if one of his children had been assaulted like we were in those early hours? Would he like to see Ecuador do better? I’m sure his reply to that would be yes. We’ll struggle so that our Ecuador is better, then! But I have no way of talking to him, and I don’t believe I ever will.

I hope there’s a solution for everyone’s good– for the good of the company, for us, for our families. Guillermo Touma said he’d try to help us get back some of the things that were stolen. Perhaps God is teaching us humility. Sometimes you can get a bit above yourself– you might be looking down your nose at others. Sometimes we all need a good dose of humility.

When we had the idea of striking I said to my roommate, “Juan, when we finish all this we’re going to sit down. We’re going to ask for rice with beans and carne asada. And we’ll eat like we’ve never eaten.” That was one of our great dreams. He would say to me, “Yes that’s what we’ll do.” But my friend isn’t with me and I don’t know how he’s doing. His family doesn’t know anything, and I haven’t been able to see him because I don’t have the bus fare. I hope he has eaten. I hope he’s well.

I’ll be disappointed if the strike isn’t resolved in our favour. Not because of the value of the money, but because of the effort and blood that has been spilled. I hope Álvaro Noboa doesn’t think we only want more money. We want fair treatment. We want him to respect our rights… that’s all.

Photo: First Communion, 1950s. Photo courtesy of Kevin Coleman and the Rafael Platero Paz Archive.