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.”
According to the United Federation of Workers (CUT) in Colombia, last year at least 129 union activists were murdered. By one count, so far this year more than sixty have been assassinated. Numbers twenty-two and twenty-three were the aforementioned co-workers of Gustavo Soler, Drummond employees Valrnore Locarno and Victor Orcasita, president and vice president of me coal miners’ union, respectively.
The rich deposits of low-sulfur coal in Cesar province first caught Drummond’s attention in the early 1 990s. According to a high-ranking former Colombian military officer, it was in that period that the paramilitaries began aggressive operations in Cesar province, fighting FARC and killing suspected FARC sympathizers. The paras, who have since grown into an efficient fighting force of more than 8,000, now dominate the region.
Doing business in a war zone, Drummond got what it might have expected–violence. Since serious production began, Drummond has endured repeated attacks by leftist guerrillas, chiefly against the company’s 200-kilometer rail line, which carries 40,000 tons of coal a day from the mine to “Puerto Drummond” on the coast. Still, Drummond’s CEO, Garry Neil Drummond, says business is good. “We believe in the future of Colombia,” he said recently. As for the violence, “the problem is manageable.”
The firm has tried to keep a happy face on its operations, literally: Its logo in Colombia is a caricature of a chubby, smiling coal miner named Drumino, wearing a bright-yellow shirt, blue pants and a bright-blue mining helmet. It’s the company’s answer, announced Garry Drummond, to the prototypical Colombian coffee-bean picker Juan Valdez. “This is Drumino, coal miner, saying hi,” the character says in one company publication. “I am uncomplicated and hard-working, cheerful and optimistic.”
In the real world, labor relations have been tense at the best of times. “Relations are not good,” says Gustavo Soler. Early on, workers joined a union called Sintramienergetica. Disagreements with management at the mine ran the gamut: salaries, working conditions, health coverage, schedules and even food. Hardly gourmet diners, the miners, who believed that the man contracted to provide meals was a paramilitary sympathizer, say he prepared inedible slop. Union leaders also say they resented the lie detector tests some were forced to take, with questions like “Are you supporting the guerrillas?”
Even more ominous were the repeated anonymous threats against the labor leaders’ lives. There was a rebel attack against the company’s rail line in April 2000. “That was when the fliers started to appear,” Soler says. The anonymous fliers began by extolling the coal mine. “The multinational Drummond is a source of income and growth for our city, and for that reason it has become like our heritage.” “No al Syndicalismo guerrillero” they read. “No to the guerrilla Union.”
Last September, FARC attacked Drummond’s rail line again, blowing up a locomotive and taking three employees hostage. The threats to the union escalated. Another anonymous flier found its way around town: “We know that the heads of the union have a clear nexus with the subversion…. down with the guerrilla union. down with the subversion that is against investment in the country.”
There is no evidence that the union had anything to do with attacks against the company, but being accused of sympathizing with guerrillas in para country is like being called a government witness in a mob social club. So it is not hard to imagine the fear the union leadership lived with at that point. In fact, there’s virtually a record of it: letters the union wrote to anyone they thought would help. On September 28, union president Locarno wrote to Drummond’s human resources department. His letter, on union stationery with a little drawing of a miner’s helmet crossed by a hammer and shovel, cited the dangers of traveling and the anonymous pamphlets. He asked for permission for the union heads to stay, between twelve-hour shifts, in the relative safety of the mine. “We hope we can count on your collaboration and your concurrence for the protection of our lives.”
Drummond turned him down flat. On October 6, the company replied, assuring Locarno that “the company has made the appropriate authorities aware of this situation,” but regretfully letting him know that spending the night at the facility would not be permitted. The union leaders also wrote to the Colombian government asserting that the pamphlets are “putting our lives in danger.” They asked for help under a special government program designed to protect union leaders. Interior Department officials refused the request, issuing a finding this past February that the risk was “bajo-medio“–low to medium.
On March 12, at the end of a shift, Valmore Locarno and Victor Orcasita left the mine together, in the second of four daily company-chartered buses into town. Union officials say that when the bus passed a toll booth, about ten paramilitaries in a four by four pulled it over. Soler says, “We think that some person from the mine had contact with the assassins because they knew exactly which bus [Locarno and Orcasita] were on.” Union officials say a man in the front seat of the paramilitaries’ vehicle seemed to pick out the victims, as the workers were lined up seated on the dirt road before him. Locarno’s life ended there with a bullet in the head and the chest. Orcasita was taken elsewhere, and his body was found the next day, hands tied.
The company issued a statement deploring the killings and maintaining that it has always had good relations with the union. The company spokesman, Mike Tracy, says, “We are really concerned about the safety of our employees. We feel like we’ve taken appropriate measures.” Now, says Tracy, escort cars accompany the buses taking the workers from their shifts.
Far from the tropical heat of La Loma mine, in Drummond’s hometown of Birmingham, John Stewart is, roughly speaking, Gustavo Soler’s counterpart in the United States, as president of the United Mine Workers local. He is furious about the killings and riled up about Drummond’s Colombia mine. “They’re not going to want any union over there,” the 59-year-old union veteran says in an Alabama drawl. “That’s why they moved there.” Stewart says that since 1995, when Drummond began production in Colombia, the company has shut down all but one of its mines in the United States. Drummond says it was no longer economically viable to extract the coal; Stewart claims Drummond went to Colombia for the cheap labor.
“This is a company that has laid off 1,700 American coal miners in the last decade,” says Kenneth Zinn of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions, “and has chosen to relocate its production to a place where they murder trade unionists.” He adds, “These union leaders were threatened repeatedly by the paramilitaries. The union leaders brought it to the attention of the Drummond executives. Drummond executives chose to ignore those pleadings, and if I were them I sure wouldn’t sleep easy at night.”
Meanwhile, a loose consortium of US labor leaders has come together to help highlight labor rights violations in Colombia. A new program of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center plans to bring threatened union activists to the United States for temporary sanctuary, while the United Auto Workers is targeting the Colombian Embassy in Washington with a postcard campaign.
Some US union leaders, weaned politically on protests against US involvement in Central America, see Plan Colombia as a traditional counterinsurgency intervention. “Colombia is a case that smells like those other cases,” says Dan Kovalik, deputy counsel for the Steelworkers, who protested against aid to El Salvador’s military in the 1980s. But Colombia, he says, has an added dimension. “I mean, look, Colombia is sort of everything we hate about globalization gone to its extreme, right? Companies are there; they’re not only oppressing people, they’re working with paramilitaries.”
Kovalik is one of the lawyers who brought the case against the biggest brand in the world, Coca-Cola, charging that the company and its Colombian subsidiary and bottlers should be held responsible for paramilitary attacks on union leaders and workers. The lawsuit cites one shooting just this past June, a union | negotiator gunned down on the street; but Colombian labor leaders have made these charges against Coca-Cola for years. Sinaltrainal, a food and beverage workers’ union, alleges that workers have been killed, threatened and harassed at various bottling plants. One high-ranking labor official says simply, “Everyone knows that Coca-Cola works with the paramilitaries.”
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.
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.
It also appears that the company had a relationship with the Colombian Army. According to case documents, after the episode, the ex-manager of the plant told investigators that he had an agreement to pay the army the equivalent of about $500 a month for protection. He said that the man they dealt with was Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio, a notorious violator of human rights who managed to surpass even what the military would tolerate, and was forced to resign in 1999. “He was an open supporter of paramilitary groups,” says Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch.
Three years after the killing, in 1999, prosecutors charged the former plant manager and the chief of production with setting up the whole thing: the murder, the abduction of Cardona, the destruction of union headquarters and the forced renunciations. But the case fell apart after the production chief claimed that he, too, had been a target of the paramilitaries, while the plant manager insisted that he hadn’t been around. Moreover, the judge in the case decided that since the region of Uraba, where the plant was based, is notoriously dominated by the paramilitaries, the crimes were part of a larger attack on labor rather than a specific corporate conspiracy. The charges were dropped, and the case against the two former plant managers was closed this past April.
Richard Kirby, reached by telephone in Florida before the suit was filed, declined to comment. “I’m not political and I’m not interested in politics,” he said. “As I understand it, I think that the matter was examined. I think I would say it was put on the shelf, wouldn’t you?” After the suit was filed, Kirby’s lawyer said the allegations were baseless. Emilio Urrea, the general manager for Kirby’s company in Colombia, explained that the paramilitaries forced the union renunciations on their own. Urrea said he can’t rule out involvement by the former on-site plant manager, but he insisted the US owners had nothing to do with it. The suit in the United States charges that there were human rights violations at other plants in Colombia as well; like Kirby, Coca-Cola and the other companies that were sued vigorously deny the allegations.
So who is responsible? If this were Alabama–Drummond’s headquarters–or Atlanta, Coca-Cola’s home, the same events would obviously lead to public outrage. But this is Colombia, where such violent transactions are relatively minor notches on the paramilitaries’ belts. They can be explained away as the symptoms of ideological quirks: The paramilitaries hate unions; they attack them; it makes no difference what the company did; this is all part of a larger war. According to this logic, if the paras thought they were doing the corporations a favor by attacking their unions, then it is hardly the companies’ responsibility.
While union activists acknowledge there is no direct proof that the companies commissioned the killings, they insist that this does not mean they are innocent. Hector Fajardo, the CUT’s general secretary, who has survived three assassination attempts, says, “The companies benefit, even if it’s indirectly.”
Three months after the Drummond killings, when I interviewed Gustavo Soler, he was preoccupied with his cell phone, which wasn’t working properly. He tested the phone, he tapped it, he checked the battery and he looked at the display.
His obsession became understandable when I asked him about the steps taken for his protection. He grinned with embarrassment and, shrugging, he held up the cell phone in his left hand. “This is my security,” he said. It was given him by the Colombian government. Evidently, if the paramilitaries arrive, he’s supposed to use it to call for help.