By vocation, Gustavo Soler is a heavy equipment operator at a coal mine in northern Colombia; by choice, he’s a labor activist. Hunched over a borrowed wooden desk in an office in Barranquilla, his stocky forearms resting on a file folder, he acknowledges that his life is at risk, and that one day men with guns may come for him. Three months before, they came for his predecessor as union president–who was killed on the spot–and for the union’s vice president, dragged away and apparently tortured before he was murdered. No one has been arrested’ but it’s commonly accepted that the killers were members of the country’s brutal ultra-rightist paramilitaries.
Soler and the dead men, who all worked at the huge La Loma mine in the remote Cesar province, had together been something of a thorn in the side of their employer, Drummond, a company based roughly 2,000 miles away in Birmingham, Alabama. They demanded better working conditions and accused Drummond of violating Colombian labor laws. Before the men were killed in mid-March, Drummond appears to have had ample warning that their lives were in danger.
What is perhaps most disturbing about the Drummond case is that it is not unusual. Union activity at other Colombian worksites, including several run by American companies, has been greeted with terror. Take the case of Luis Adolfo Cardona, a wiry man with a delicately trimmed mustache who used to earn about $200 a month as a forklift operator at a factory in the western area of Uraba. When the paramilitaries came for him, he says, he was so scared his hands and feet were trembling, but he escaped. A friend and fellow union organizer was killed on the plant grounds, and the entire work force was forced to renounce the union. The plant where Cardona worked is American-owned; it produces 50,000 cases of Coca-Cola per month.
Activists in Colombia, and now American labor leaders, are becoming increasingly concerned about the situation. In July, the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund filed suit in US court against Coca-Cola and some bottlers in Colombia on behalf of their workers, alleging that the companies hired, contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces.” The companies deny the charges.
The US government, meanwhile, continues to play a pivotal role in the explosive politics of the country. Amid images of coca growing in the hills and thuggish guerrillas treading silently on jungle paths, the $1.3 billion in US anti-drug aid provided by Plan Colombia is sending Black Hawk helicopters skimming the tree line and clouds of chemicals fumigating illicit bright-green crops. But the elephant in the room, as the policy grinds forward, is US corporate involvement in Colombia. The United States is Colombia’s biggest foreign investor. As the State Department put it in a report, “savvy global companies understand clearly the strategic potential of the country,” and “with risk comes opportunity and competitive advantage against the less bold.” That risk, for US companies, is posed by the leftwing–guerrilla groups ELN and FARC–themselves responsible for myriad abuses, according to Human Rights Watch. But the majority of atrocities are committed by the right-wing paramilitaries, which, as the State Department report notes, “have not targeted US interests.”
On the contrary, in some cases paramilitary acts appear to have aided those interests. High on the list of paramilitary targets are Colombia’s union leaders, because of their ideology, their apparent interference in the machine of commerce, their generally left-wing politics and their advocacy for peace. And American firms–including Drummond–have roundly cheered a US aid plan that, according to many in Colombia, allows the paramilitaries to thrive. “We’ve always supported Plan Colombia,” Drummond spokesman Mike Tracy says. “We just think that it’s in the best interest of the government and the business community in Colombia, and the general population.”