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It's the Real Thing: Murder | The Nation

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It's the Real Thing: Murder

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One striking case cited in the lawsuit was in Carepa, in the Uraba region, in 1996. The story, pieced together from interviews and thousands of pages of files from the official Colombian investigation, highlights troubling questions about the interplay between a company and the armed participants in the war.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Aram Roston
Aram Roston is the winner of the 2010 Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting. He is...

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While most Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia are owned by Panamerican Beverages, a large publicly traded company, the Carepa bottler is privately owned by a US family whose patriarch, Richard Kirby, used to be president of Panamerican's subsidiary in Colombia. Kirby now lives in Key Biscayne, Florida, and according to his lawyer, he has only once, long ago, been to his bottling plant in a region plagued by violence.

Luis Adolfo Cardona, the union's general secretary, says that at the plant, operating the union was impossible. Management, he says, "did not want to negotiate." The local head of the paramilitaries in Carepa was nicknamed Cepillo, "the brush," and, according to Cardona, "the manager kept saying that the hour he talked to Cepillo, we would be killed, we would be finished."

On November 30, 1996, the union submitted its demands for a new collective-bargaining agreement. The workers wanted more money--a 35 percent raise in the first year and another 35 percent the next, bringing the salaries to about $400 a month--better job security and health benefits. Things went downhill from there.

On the morning of December 5, the union's negotiator and plant gatekeeper, Isidro Segundo Gil, was shot ten times, right next to the Coca-Cola sign on the wall, after opening the entrance. Fellow workers said they gathered around where he lay face down in a pool of blood, and saw the killers drive off on motorcycles.

Later that day, Cardona says, he was intercepted by the paras. He says he was told he was being taken to see Cepillo, and it was clear he was going to be killed, so he decided to run for it. The paramilitaries chased him down on a motorcycle, he recalls, but he managed to get to the police station. "They're going to kill me," he says he told the one police officer on duty, "simply because I belong to the union."

While there have been serious allegations of police complicity with the paramilitaries, there have also been acts of extraordinary bravery: police who take on the militias single-handedly. In this case, as the policeman loaded Cardona into a van, Cardona spotted the paramilitaries waiting at the corner and pointed them out. The police lieutenant replied, "Don't worry, I know who all the sons of bitches are." Cardona and his family were sent to safety.

That night the paramilitaries attacked and torched the union's headquarters.

Seven days later, the union workers say, they were brought to the cafeteria in the morning, where paramilitaries, who appeared to have strolled into the plant unimpeded, told them they would have to resign from the union by 4 pm, or they would be killed. Workers later told investigators it was the plant managers, not the paramilitaries, who handed out the form letters that workers were expected to sign. "Dear Sirs," the letters begin, "By this I present my irrevocable resignation from the union Sinaltrainal."

All told, there were forty-three signatures on forty-three letters. As a prosecutor wrote in an internal document, the paramilitaries had achieved their objective: forcing the union out.

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