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US leans on Guatemala to enforce trade pact

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"Union leaders continue to be assassinated," says Carlos Mancilla, secretary general of the CUSG union organization, whose home was riddled with bullets in 2007, presumably due to his union activities. He said investigators let 27 days pass before coming to inspect the scene, and no one was ever charged. "In Guatemala, there's an anti-union culture."

Business groups say violence against union members is a symptom of a surge in violence that has affected companies as well, but given the high levels of impunity in Guatemala, it is impossible to say exactly who is behind the assassinations and threats. The Public Ministry, comparable to an attorney general's office, rarely carries out a proper investigation into union murders, Mr. Mancilla says, and an AFL-CIO complaint says there is evidence that the government itself may have even been involved in at least one assassination.

US Trade Representative Ron Kirk requested a trade commission meeting with Guatemala in May under the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which is the final step before bringing the matter before a settlement panel that has the authority to impose fines. This is the first labor case the US has ever brought against a trade partner.

The issue has the potential to affect the US presidential campaign, as Mr. Obama struggles to balance his strategy of creating more jobs through trade against his need to energize unions to support his reelection. It may also be a sign that the US labor movement has found a way to exert more influence in trade negotiations.

But Guatemala's weak judicial system and decades of entrenched government corruption may make it an odd test case. The military demobilization that followed the 1996 peace accords, which ended the country's 36-year civil war, left a vacuum that drug traffickers quickly filled.

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