David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
Blood for Coal
by David Bacon

WASHINGTON, DC (8/20/01) - Every summer, supporters of human rights in Congress seek to derail the huge budget for Plan Colombia. This July, however, Congress didn't just debate funding one side of a civil war. When the administration finally unveiled its energy policy, passed in the House on July 31, it laid bare a growing economic reason why the U.S. is being drawn into that conflict.

It's not drugs. It's coal.

One of the main countries now a source for coal burned in U.S. power plants is Colombia. And in Colombia, U.S. energy, military and trade policy are becoming intertwined with devastating consequences for the country's labor movement.

"Deaths due to political violence [have] roughly doubled from previous years," "These are innocent people trying to make Colombia a safer and more prosperous place," Massachusetts Democrat John F. Tierney told fellow Congress members on the House floor in early July. "Like Cristobol Uribe Beltran of the Association of Workers and Employees in Hospitals, Clinics and Organizations, who was kidnapped on June 27th and assassinated the very next day. Innocent lives brought to an end for no legitimate reason. This is not progress."

Leading a union often means losing a job, even blacklisting. In many countries, it can bring imprisonment by governments who view unions as a threat to the social and economic elite. But in some countries, election to union office carries even greater peril. And the most dangerous country by far is Colombia, where labor activism is often punished with death.

By mid-May, 44 Colombian trade union leaders had been violently murdered this year alone. Last year's assassinations cost the lives of 129 others. The National Labor School, a non-governmental institute which supports the country's labor movement, reports that 1500 have been killed in the past decade. And according to Hector Fajardo, general secretary of Colombia's largest union federation, the Unified Confederation of Workers (CUT), 3,800 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia since 1986. Las year, out of every 5 trade unionists killed in the world, 3 were Colombian, according to a recent report by the United Steel Workers.

U.S. unions increasingly point to a network of administration policies which contribute to the targeting of Colombian unionists. The U.S.' Plan Colombia provides over $1 billion to Colombia's military, justified as necessary to suppress cocaine production. In reality, however, organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented extensively that aid provided by Plan Colombia supports activities by rightwing paramilitary groups, who in turn target trade union leaders.

At the same time, Bush administration energy policies encourage the use of coal in U.S. power plants, and millions of tons are now mined in the midst of Colombia's civil war by U.S. corporations. Privatization of Colombian mines and other free market economic reforms, pushed by the International Monetary Fund, are concentrating those operations in the hands of large U.S. corporations and are provoking a wave of resistance by Colombian workers. Resistance is being met by violent repression.

And U.S. unions like the United Steel Workers say that human rights abuses in Colombia have a direct impact on U.S. workers and union members. A low-wage Colombian workforce, whose labor rights are attacked and union leaders murdered, gives U.S. companies a low-cost advantage in moving production there.

One of the cases they point to is that of two murdered coal miners.

In mid-March, Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Victor Hugo Orcasita were riding from their jobs at the Loma coal mine in northern Colombia. Locarno Rodriguez and Orcasita were chairman and vice-chairman of the union at the mine, a local of Sintramienergetica, one of Colombia's two coal miners' unions. As the company bus neared Valledupar, 30 miles from the mine, it was stopped by 15 gunmen, some in military uniforms. They began checking the identification of the workers, and when they found the two union leaders, they were pulled off the bus.

Locarno has hit in the heat with a rifle butt. One of the gunmen then shot him in the face, as his fellow workers on the bus watched in horror. Orcasita was taken off into the woods at the side of the road. There he was tortured. When his body was later found, his fingernails had been torn off.

Protesting the deaths, 1200 miners at Loma briefly stopped work.

The Loma mine is owned by a U.S. multinational corporation, Drummond Co., Inc., based in Birmingham, Alabama. Drummond opened the Loma mine in 1994, and it is now Colombia's second largest. At first, according to Ken Zinn, North American regional coordinator of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions, the company promised workers in its U.S. mines that its Colombian coal wouldn't be imported into the U.S. to compete with its U.S. operations. But since 1994, Drummond has closed 5 mines in Alabama, laying off 1700 members of the United Mine Workers. Its one remaining U.S. mine employs about 500 miners.

Last year, 5.5 million tons of Colombian coal crossed the Alabama State Docks in Mobile, bound for plants operated by the Alabama Power Co., a division of the Southern Co., and the Alabama Electrical Cooperative. The plants were formerly fueled by Drummond's U.S. mines.

Alabama used to export coal -- 13 million tons in 1996, mostly from Drummond mines. Last year's exports totaled only 3 million tons. At the Loma mine, production rose 4 million tons in 2000, to a total of 11.8 million. The company expects to sell 15 million tons next year, and 25 million tons by 2006.

For Drummond the transfer has resulted in substantial savings on labor costs. A UMWA miner in Alabama earns $18/hour, or $3060/month, not counting benefits. At the Loma mine, wages range from $477-955.

Drummond, says UMWA vice-president Jerry Jones, transferred operations to Colombia "knowing that country's hostile political climate and egregious human rights violations." Conditions for Colombian miners are some of the world's most dangerous. An April 27 blast at the Cana Brava mine in Santander province took the lives of 15 miners. In October of 1997, another explosion buried 16 coal miners alive in El Diviso mine, near Cucuta.

Colombia is the world's fourth-largest coal exporter - it shipped 30 million tons in 2000, worth $794 million, making coal the country's third-largest source of export earnings.

The Cerrejon Norte mine, the largest export mine in the world and formerly state-owned, is now a joint venture with Exxon Corp. In 2000, the mine produced 18.4 million tons of coal, half Colombia's total output. Half of that went to Exxon, which sold 17% to the Jacksonville (Florida) Electric Cooperative and Mississippi Power.

After developing Cerrejon Norte in the mid-1908s, Exxon, like Drummond, began cutting its U.S. coal production. It closed a new mine in West Virginia, an older one in Illinois, and sold off operations in the Rockies, Exxon, which used to employ over 1600 US miners, now employs just 321 people at its one remaining mine in Monterey, Illinois. Meanwhile, it's Colombian operation now accounts for over half the company's coal production worldwide.

Drummond clearly sees an interest in Bush's coal-fired energy policy, and in U.S. military intervention in Colombia as well. "We are in support of the Colombian Plan and the U.S. efforts in the drug war," Mike Tracy, a Drummond spokesman, told independent journalist Stephen Jackson, whose report was published in the Latin American Post.

The Colombian army provides security for Exxon at Cerrejon Norte from a military base just a few miles away, presumably using hardware supplied under Plan Colombia. It has a history of involvement in labor disputes in the mine - in the early 1990s Cerrejon Norte was occupied by tanks after the government ordered the military to break a miners's strike.

Other U.S. energy corporations, like Occidental Petroleum, depend on the Colombian army as well, to provide security in their oilfields.

Drummond's desire for a friendly administration policy translated into a $50,000 donation to the Republican National Committee last July, and $25,000 to the National Republican Congressional Campaign and $20,000 to the National Republican Senate Campaign last October. Overall, the coal industry dumped $3.8 million into the 2000 elections, and gave 80% of it to Republicans. In turn, the Bush campaign pursued a "cars and coal" strategy to win mining states.

On November 3, days before the election, candidate Bush told a West Virginia crowd that "coal is going to help energize America." He didn't promise, however, that it would be U.S.-mined coal. And after the election, the administration dropped a campaign pledge that it would back carbon-dioxide emissions reductions from coal-fired power stations. That policy change has a big impact on southeast plants burning Colombian coal.

"That shouldn't be a surprise," comments Mike Buckner, a researcher for the United Mine Workers. "Bush comes from the state which is the country's largest consumer of coal, and Dick Cheney from the state which is the largest producer."

Bush's energy policy, which passed the House of Representatives on August 1, calls for building an additional 1300-1900 new electrical generating stations, overwhelmingly fossil-fuel burning, over the next 20 years. One result will be a vast increase in the consumption of coal. The market for Colombian coal in the southeast will mushroom.

"It's clear that certain sections of the energy policy follow industry plans closely," concludes Argin Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Responsibility for the murders of Locarno and Orcasita was laid at the feet of Colombia's rightist paramilitary army, the United Defense Groups (AUC), by the police commander for Cesar Province, Hugo Alfonso Cepeda. He told Colombian television network RCN that "it appears that it's attributable to paramilitaries who operate in the region." According to Ken Zinn, the AUC issued a number of death threats against the leaders of the union at the Loma mine, accusing them of being in league with the country's main guerilla group, the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

The region has been the scene of intense conflict between the guerillas and the AUC. The FARC allegedly levies a 10% tax on coal moving by rail out of the mine, which Drummond has refused to pay, and the 215-mile rail line to Puerto Drummond on the coast was bombed five times in the last year. In response, Drummond president Gary Drummond visited Colombian president Andres Pastrana last year to demand increased protection.

``In the conflict a lot of assumptions are made quickly,'' says Rafael Albuquerque, who represents the International Labor Organization in Colombia, "One of those assumptions is that many union leaders support the guerrillas."

Locarno and Orcasita made repeated pleas to the company for protection. In a meeting just a week before the assassinations, the union demanded that Drummond provide security for its workers, and that the company abide by a previous agreement allowing them to sleep overnight at the mine. The company ignored the agreement and refused to allow the men to stay.

While coal mine union leaders are clearly targets of the paramilitaries, they're not the only ones. Just days after the murders in Valledupar, two leaders of the Colombian electrical workers union, Andres Granados and Jaime Sanchez, were gunned down March 22. In mid-March, Eugenio Sanchez Diaz, a union activist in Colombia's key oil town of Barrancabermeja was dragged from his home and shot in the street.

"In the first 45 days of this year, 145 people have been killed in this small city." thundered Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY). "These killings take place in spite of the fact that this is one of the most militarized cities in all of Colombia. The Colombian Army's Fifth Brigade maintains a military presence, and that includes the U.S.-funded 61st Advanced Riverine Battalion."Another assassinated union leader, Ricardo Orozco, vice president of the Colombian Hospital Workers' Union, had his name on a list of 50 union leaders in Barranquilla, which was circulated by the paramilitary death squads. He was shot by a gunman in April, and his death was followed by two days of national labor protest.

The AUC is held responsible by unionists for almost all of 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. Generally they see groups on the left as linked to the ideology that led to the formation of guerilla groups."

The AUC, which by numerous press accounts operates in cooperation with the military, is backed by some 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."

Violence against trade unionists is part of a larger context of violence against community leaders, human rights activists, and advocates for social change generally. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, 6,000 Colombians were killed as the result of social and political violence in 2000. The CCJ attributes 80% of the cases to the paramilitaries, 5% directly to the government, and 15% to leftwing guerillas. Roberto Molino of the CCJ told a delegation of U.S. unionists, that "in the case of the paramilitaries, you cannot underestimate the collaboration of government forces."

Kirk draws a distinction between union assassinations by the AUC and union members killed by the guerillas. "The guerillas sometimes kill people who belong to unions because they believe they are cooperating with the AUC. But the paramilitaries kill them because they are trade unionists."

The Colombian government also views union activity as a threat because it challenges its basic economic policies. The Colombian administration of President Andres Pastrana is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to cut the public sector budget, causing the mass terminations, along with cuts in education, healthcare and pensions. Finance minister Juan Manuel Santos announced in January measures that would close many state agencies, laying off 42, 000 workers. The money would be used to pay the country's debt to foreign banks and lending institutions, making Colombia more attractive to foreign investors.

In March, the General Confederation of Democratic Workers organized a 24-hour strike of 700,000 workers, including 300,000 teachers and education employees, protesting mass layoffs.

The Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE) struck again on May 15 for 48 hours, over a proposal to cut the education budget by $340 million. "If this bill is approved, it will have a very negative effect on educators and health care workers throughout Colombia," said FECODE President Gloria Ines Ramirez. Heath care workers also joined the strike. On June 7, tens of thousands of Colombian workers took to the streets in marches across the country, opposing the IMF.

Ramirez predicted that the cuts would deprive 500,000 Colombian children of an education, and three million people have already signed petitions opposing them. "We will not allow the government to make budget cuts for two of the most important necessities for our poorest sector simply to pay interest on the foreign debt," she declared.

Being a teacher union activist in Colombia is as dangerous as being a coal mine leader. Since 1986, 418 educators have been murdered. In just one week in early May, Dario de Jesus Silva, a 22-year veteran teacher in Antioquia Department, and Juan Carlos Castro Zapata, another school worker in the same province, were assassinated. Both were activists in the CUT teachers' union ADIDA. On May 14, Julio Alberto Otero, a university lecturer and union activist, was also killed.

Another IMF mandate, privatization, has been just as bitterly resisted. The union for workers at the government corporation EMCALI, which provides garbage, water and electricity to Cali city residents, has fought the company's selloff. One of the union's activists, Carlos Eliecer Prado, was killed in May. "Colombian trade unionists have been targeted by dark forces moving inside the State itself," a union statement warned. "They seek to silence through assassination, eviction or terror those who are against privatization and those who defend human rights."

The wave of death and violence is made possible by growing U.S. aid to the Colombian armed forces. Under Plan Colombia, the U.S. has funneled over $1 billion into the country, almost entirely in the form of 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," charged New York Democrat Joseph Crowley.

Both Colombian and U.S. unions say this money funds a dirty war against all critics of the Colombian social and economic order, including unionists. 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 main Colombian labor federation, the CUT.

On July 20, the USWA and the International Labor Rights Fund went a step further - into Federal court in Miami. They charged the Coca-Cola Corp., PanamericanBeverages (the largest soft-drink bottler in Latin America with a 60-year history with Coke), and Bebidas y Alimentos, a Colombian bottling plant owned by Richard Kirby of Key Biscayne, Florida with allowing paramilitaries to assassinate a union leader, Isidro Segundo Gil, at the plant's entrance in 1996.

After the USWA delegation made its report, the union's president Leo Gerard warned that "we are strongly opposed to the amount of military aid being sent to the Colombian Army when trade unionists and innocent people are being killed by the very military forces we are financing."

Many in Congress agree. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) says "cutting funds from the Colombian military makes sense. This is a military that has repeatedly been implicated in the brutalization and murder of the very people that it is supposed to protect."

The USWA criticism follows a position taken by the AFL-CIO last year, which also called for ending military assistance. The federation picketed the Colombian embassy in April, condemning the murder of union leaders. That position puts the U.S. labor federation at odds with the Bush administration on a key foreign policy issue, and marks a basic change in relations between U.S. and Colombian labor.

Labor's strong reaction to the Colombian murders stands in contrast to its relative silence during the Reagan administration-sponsored wars in Central America in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During that era, cold-war anti-communism led AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland to try to suppress widespread criticism of U.S. foreign policy in union ranks, and to stop efforts from below to organize grassroots support for Salvadoran trade unionists at a time when they were hit with the same wave of death now evident in Colombia.

During the cold war, Kirkland and other labor conservatives accused most Colombian unions of being too leftwing. In turn the Colombians, like many third world labor federations, accused the AFL-CIO of supporting only anti-communist unions which defended U.S. foreign policy.

Today, U.S. unions want relations with all sectors of Colombian labor, and use a single standard in calling for the defense of unions under attack. "Trade union rights are human rights and our union will fight to protect them everywhere," Gerard says. "We demand that the Colombian government protect all trade unionists in their country and do everything in its power to bring these assassins to justice."

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