Peace & Justice
The Real Thing - Murders at Coke
by David Bacon
SAN FRANCISCO, CA (11/24/01) -- After the leader of their union was shot down at the gate into the plant where they worked, Edgar Paez and his coworkers at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Carepa, Colombia, tried for four years to get the country's courts to bring the people responsible to justice. Instead, some of the workers themselves wound up behind bars, while they watched the real murderers go free.
If Colombian courts and the Colombian government are incapable or unwilling to ensure justice, they reasoned, why not reach outside the country for help? Since Coca Cola is a huge transnational corporation, based in Atlanta, Georgia, why not use the US courts instead? And who better to help a Colombian union challenge a huge US company than a powerful US union?
This was the logic that led the Colombian union, SINALTRAINAL, together with the United Steel Workers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund, to file a case in the Florida courts last July against Coca Cola, Inc., Panamerican Beverages (the largest soft-drink bottler in Latin America, with a 60-year history with Coke), and Bebidas y Alimentos (owned by Richard Kirby of Key Biscayne, Florida), which operates the Carepa plant. The three companies are charged with complicity in the assassination of a Colombian union leader. The case has become the centerpiece in a new strategy developed by that country's unions to stop a wave of murders of union militants that's lasted over a decade. International labor cooperation, the unions believe, is the only effective means to counter the power of transnational corporations, backed by the Colombian and US governments.
The Florida case charges that at 8:30 on the morning of December 5, 1996, a rightwing paramilitary squad of the United Self Defense Forces (AUC) showed up at the gate into the Coke bottling plant. Isidro Segundo Gil, a member of the union's executive board, went to see what they wanted. The paras opened fire on him, and he dropped to the ground, mortally wounded. An hour after he was assassinated, paramilitaries kidnapped another leader of the union at his home, who managed to escape nonetheless, and fled to Bogota. At eight that evening, they broke into the union's offices, destroyed the equipment there, and burned down the whole house containing the union's records.
The next day, the heavily-armed group went inside the bottling plant, called the workers together, and gave them until 4PM to resign from the union. "They said that if they didn't resign, the same thing would happen to them that happened to Gil - they would be killed," recalls Paez, who visited the US in November to ask union members here to support the suit.
Coca Cola spokesperson Rafael Fernandez asserts that the company has a code of conduct requiring respect for human rights. Coke's Colombia spokesperson, Pedro Largacha, disclaims any responsibility: "bottlers in Colombia are completelyindependent of the Coca-Cola Company." The bottler, Bebidas y Alimentos, says it had no way to stop the paramilitaries from doing whatever they wanted -- after all, they had guns. "You don't use them, they use you," Kirby stated. "Nobody tells the paramilitaries what to do."
But the suit charges that plant manager Ariosto Milan Mosquera claimed "he had given an order to the paramilitaries to carry out the task of destroying the union." Workers believed him because he had a history of partying with the paramilitaries.
Baez says not only were the plant's managers responsible for what happened, but that Coke benefited from it. "At the time of Gil's death we were involved in negotiations with the company, presenting proposals to them," he says. "The company never negotiated with the union after that. Twenty seven workers in twelve departments left the plant and the area. All the workers had to quit the union to save their own lives, and the union was completely destroyed. For two months, the paramilitaries camped just outside the plant gate. Coca Cola never complained to the authorities."
The resignation forms, the suit claims, were prepared by the company. The experienced workers who left the plant, who had been earning $380-400 a month, were replaced by new employees at minimum wage -- $130/month.
During a subsequent investigation by the Colombian Justice Ministry, the plant's director and production manger were detained, along with a local paramilitary leader. All three were later released, with no charges against them.
The assassinations were neither the first nor the last among union leaders in Colombian Coke plants. In 1994 two other union activists, Jose David and Luis Granado, were also murdered in Carepa, and at that time as well, paramilitaries demanded workers quit the union. In 1989, Jose Avelino Chicano was killed in the Pasto plant. This year, again during negotiations, a union leader at the Bucaramanga plant, Oscar Dario Soto Polo, was murdered. When the union denounced the killings, the intimidation of workers, and the attacks on their rights. the plant's chief of security, Jose Alejo Aponte, charged its leaders with terrorism and rebellion. Five were arrested and jailed for six months.
At the Barrancabermeja plant a graffiti was scrawled on the walls -- "Get Out Galvis From Coca Cola, Signed AUC." Juan Carlos Galvis is the president of the plant's union. "Many times workers have been kidnapped and by paramilitaries, and told that if they continued their union activities, they also would also be killed," Paez charges. "One of our biggest problems in Colombia is that social protest in general is being criminalized."
According to another Colombian unionist, Samuel Morales of the Unified Confederation of Workers (CUT), the country's largest union federation, "transnational corporations are the ones who actually define many economic, and even political, policies which affect us. In many ways, they are virtually the governments of the states in which they operate. And in our country, it's become a crime to speak out forcefully against them. They get cheap labor by weakening unions and getting rid of long term workers, and they're able to expand their areas of operation.
By October, 125 Colombian trade union leaders had been violently murdered this year alone. Last year's assassinations cost the lives of 129 others. According to Hector Fajardo, CUT general secretary, 3,800 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia since 1986. Last year, out of every 5 trade unionists killed in the world, 3 were Colombian, according to a recent report by the United Steel Workers.
Earlier this spring, two leaders of a union at the US-owned Drummond coal mine, Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Victor Hugo Orcasita, were killed in an incident which eventually drew worldwide condemnation. Media attention, however, didn't prevent the subsequent murder of another leader of the union in the same area, Gustavo Soler, in October.
Paramilitaries are held responsible by unionists for almost all the trade union assassinations. Robin Kirk, who monitors human rights abuses in Colombia for Human Rights Watch, says that there are strong ties between the AUC and the Colombian military. "The Colombian military and intelligence apparatus has been virulently anti-Communist since the 1950s," she says, "and they look at trade unionists as subversives - as a very real and potential threat."
"They believe it's a crime," Morales says, "to try to present any alternative, any option for social change -- just to be an organization that struggle for workers rights and needs."
The AUC is backed by elements of the business and economic elite behind the scenes. "There are powerful economic interests that support the paramilitaries," Kirk says, "and they do target trade unionists, and attack union leaders again and again." Morales agrees: "The paramilitaries don't act by themselves. They are an armed wing of the same military forces and government structures that have historically taken positions against us. In Colombia, they're called the army's 'sixth division.'"
Despite the wave of death and violence, U.S. aid to the Colombian armed forces has grown rapidly. Under Plan Colombia, the U.S. has funneled over $1 billion into the country, almost entirely in military assistance. Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world. "Plan Colombia has bloodied the hands of this Congress," charges New York Democrat Joseph Crowley.
Paez charges that the drug war, which Plan Columbia supposedly funds, is a pretext for protecting transnational investors. "Plan Colombia's objective is the elimination of movements for social change in our country," he says. "That creates a much more favorable environment for the exploitation of our natural resources and our labor force. It also provides support for the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas."
President Bush has promised to bring his proposal for fast track trade negotiations, a necessary step towards FTAA, to a vote in Congress in December.
This spring, the United Steel Workers sent a formal delegation to Colombia in the wake of the murders of Locarno Rodriguez and Orcasita. Led by attorney Dan Kovalik and Rapid Response Coordinator Glynda Williams, the delegation met with leaders of the CUT. After their return, the two unions filed the case against Coca Cola.
One stated objective of the case is to build pressure on the Colombian and US governments to comply with rights guaranteed unions and workers under the conventions of the International Labor Organization, and the Geneva Accords on Human Rights. But Colombian unions would also like to see those responsible for the murders brought to justice.
"We want to strip off the mask hiding the involvement of transnational corporations in our internal conflict," Paez explains. "To do this, we need a judicial forum outside the country, since within Colombia those guilty of these crimes are treated with impunity. In this particular case, those responsible include Coca Cola. But they're not the only company pursuing policies which violate human rights. By strengthening our ties with the Steel Workers and the AFL-CIO, we're giving our own global answer to the globalization of the corporations."
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