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Coca-Cola and Latin American Death Squads

For Immediate Release


7/19/2002 02.23

Once Again Coca-Cola and Latin American Death Squads Become Synonymous

* Reminiscent of the slaughter of trade union leaders in the 1980s at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Guatemala City

* Coca-Cola to be held accountable for "extrajudicial killing, torture, and unlawful detention"-landmark case may help to hold other, multi-national corporations responsible for franchises or foreign subsidiaries' activities throughout Latin America

* Company sued for labor abuses in Colombia

* Colombia about to get the type of negative publicity over the Coca-Cola situation it can ill afford

* Corporation taking urgent measures to dismiss case

* Coca-Cola among the "most notorious" employers in Colombia

* U.S. funds indirectly pay for paramilitary attacks on organized labor, adding to Colombia's political tumult

Upcoming Events to Illuminate Abuses

On July 20 of last year, Colombian and U.S. labor activists took a major step toward protecting Colombian workers. On that date, the International Labor Rights Fund and the United Steelworkers of America filed a $500 million civil case against the Coca-Cola Corporation in a U.S. District Court in Miami. This case, which consists of four concurrent lawsuits, seeks to hold Coca-Cola responsible for the coercive measures it has taken to repress labor activity at the Colombian bottling facilities that hold franchises from the Atlanta, Georgia-based company. Although the suit was filed almost a year ago, the trial is yet to be heard. To date, the soft drink manufacturer has filed two motions to dismiss the case and is awaiting the judge's decision on its most recent appeal for dismissal on June 6.

Reminiscent of Guatemala City

The slaughter of trade union leaders in several Coca-Cola bottling locations in Colombia directly parallels a scenario that took place in the 1980s in Guatemala City, when a rightwing American owner who lived in Texas-in the Colombian case, one of the owners is from Florida-was accused of contracting the hired services of extremist death squad units to murder trade union leaders at a Coca-Cola plant. This case became so notorious, with union leader after union leader being murdered, that eventually Coca-Cola's management, from its headquarters in Atlanta, decided to buy back the bottling plant from its American owner in an urgent effort to halt the bad publicity.

At the time that the company decided to buy back the franchise from the Trotter family, it was not envisaged that several decades later the soft drink giant would relive the events, this time in Colombia. Coca-Cola is not the only loser, the government of Colombia under its incoming president, Álvaro Uribe will also receive negative publicity over the Coca-Cola suit, including the systematic killing of labor leaders at a faster rate than any other Latin American country. According to the Colombian Labor Monitor, 105 union members have been assassinated between January 1, 2002 and July 18, 2002.

Despite the sluggish pace of legal action, the suit already has achieved one of its most important goals: drawing major media attention to the dismal conditions suffered by organized labor in Colombia. Although the case has temporarily faded from national attention in the U.S., two events planned for this month should revive the controversy. On July 20, an educational forum on both Colombia and human rights issues will bring various Colombian and American unionists together. Javier Correa, the President of the Colombian Food and Beverage Workers Union is scheduled to speak, along with U.S. Congressional Representative Cynthia McKinney. Just two days later, across the street from Coca-Cola's corporate headquarters in Atlanta, a rally will bring together those opposing Coca-Cola's treatment of workers. Through these efforts, organizers hope to illuminate "Coca-Cola's lack of concern over the safety of its workers in bottling plants in Colombia." In addition to highlighting the abuses being perpetrated by management, the rally will focus attention to the plight of Colombian unionists, who are frequent targets of the country's right-wing extremists.

Suit Filed Against Coca-Cola in July 2001

The lawsuits will hold the Coca-Cola Corporation liable for the actions of two of its Colombian bottlers, Panamco and Bebidas y Alimentos. Among those suing is the Estate of Isidero Segundo Gil, a former union leader at the Bebidas y Alimentos plant in Carepa, Colombia. In December 1996, Gil was involved in labor negotiations on behalf of Colombia's food and beverage union, SINALTRAINAL. These talks ended with Gil's assassination by Colombian paramilitaries, allegedly contracted by the plant's management. The remaining plaintiffs include the SINALTRAINAL union and five union members who claim they were unlawfully detained, kidnapped or tortured by anti-unionist paramilitaries because of their union involvement. The union is suing in part to recover damages as a result of the violence and coercion exercised against its leaders and also seeks redress for the aid it has provided to numerous exiled unionists who fled the paramilitaries.

The plaintiffs maintain that Coca-Cola's headquarters in Atlanta, exercise plenary control over the bottling companies, which exist solely to bottle and distribute Coca-Cola products. The company should therefore be held accountable for human rights violations committed by the Panamco and Bebidas y Alimentos plants. However, Coca-Cola executive, Rodrigo Calderon, argues that "the company and the bottlers had nothing to do with" the attacks and denies accusations that they ever negotiated with paramilitary groups. Additionally, James McDonald, a lawyer representing Richard Kirby, the Florida resident who owns the Carepa plant, attributes these atrocities to Colombia's "lawlessness." McDonald states that he and his client simply "deny [the] allegations." Moreover, Coca-Cola claims that it cannot be held liable in a U.S. federal court for occurrences in Colombia.

In contrast, the plaintiffs argue that Coca-Cola itself is responsible for the Colombian atrocities and are suing based on the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act. This law grants jurisdiction to U.S. Federal Courts over "any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." The plaintiffs have found additional legal validation for the case in the 1991 Torture Victim Prevention Act. This law allows any individual, alien or U.S. citizen, who was subjected to torture or "extrajudicial killing" in "any foreign nation" to try their case in a U.S. court.

In this interpretation, the law implies that the Coca-Cola Company can be held responsible in the U.S. for the actions of its foreign franchises. If won, this case could provide the bereaved relatives of victims with monetary compensation and valuable peace of mind. More importantly, a victory will set an important precedent for multinational companies and how they conduct their affairs abroad.

Coca-Cola is not the only callous employer in Colombia, as organized labor in this country is constantly threatened. The murder rate of Colombian unionists comprises 90 percent of such worldwide union assassinations; 201 Colombian unionists were murdered in 2001 alone. Today Colombia represents a killing field for trade union leaders and a growing target for international solidarity on the part of trade union protest which soon may call for a boycott of all Colombian products. Because negotiators' lives are constantly jeopardized by a pervasive threat of paramilitary groups and oppressive employers, Colombian organized labor have not been able to achieve even their most rudimentary goals. The Coca-Cola case will hopefully establish that big business can no longer profit from human rights abuses with impunity.

Coca-Cola Managers in Close Contact with Paramilitaries

In Colombia, Coca-Cola's connections to paramilitary groups through its subsidiaries allegedly facilitate the harassment of the company's organized workers. SINALTRAINAL recognizes these ties, calling Coca-Cola one of "the most notorious companies in Colombia." Moreover, it maintains that Coca-Cola "keeps open relations with the brutal death squads in its drive to intimidate union leaders." As proof, SINALTRAINAL points to Ariosto Mosquera, the manager of the Carepa Bebidas y Alimentos plant where Isidero Gil was murdered. According to the plaintiffs, Mosquera is known for his socializing with the paramilitaries and has "boasted publicly that he would use paramilitaries to sweep away the union." Moreover, Mosquera substantiated these threats, having allowed his paramilitary cronies to camp out at the Carepa plant for months at a time. Based on these facts, the plaintiffs contend that Mosquera and his ultimate employer, Coca-Cola, should be held accountable for Gil's murder.

Two days following Gil's death, the paramilitaries further intimidated union sympathizers, informing them that the Bebidas y Alimentos company actively opposed trade union activity and that workers' lives would be endangered if they did not quit the union. As a result of this explicit threat, nearly 20 workers abandoned their jobs as well as the neighborhood of Carepa in order to safeguard their lives, while the remaining members disassociated themselves from the union.

Coca-Cola's coercion of unions extends beyond the plant at Carepa. Juan Carlos Glavis, the president of the SINALTRAINAL union at the Panamco plant in Barrancabermeja, was repeatedly threatened by paramilitaries. According to the lawsuit, Colombia's notoriously brutal, right-wing paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC), wrote the following warning on the wall of the Barrancabermeja plant: "Get out Glavis >From Coca-Cola, signed AUC." Even Colombia's outgoing president, Andres Pastrana, has acknowledged is responsible for 80 percent of all human rights violations in Colombia.

Colombian Turmoil and the U.S.'s Role

Colombian organized labor brought the suit to the United States because their country's corrupt and compromised judicial system has repeatedly failed to recognize the plight of these workers. Colombia's tumultuous political scene further complicates the unionists' difficulties. Paramilitaries, including the AUC, justify their frequent targeting of unionists by characterizing organized laborers as either guerrilla sympathizers or Marxists. While the Colombian government insists that it has severed ties to paramilitary groups, a number of international organizations contradict these claims by noting that working relationships between the Colombian government and paramilitary groups not only exist, but may be growing stronger.

Colombia is the world's third largest recipient of U.S. funding, receiving more than U.S. $1.3 billion in contributions, most of which supports the country's notorious military. As President-elect Álvaro Uribe is poised to assume office on August 7, critics fear that aid may support the effort to intimidate unionists due to reported paramilitary sympathies. While the U.S. touts that its financial contributions increase Colombian stability, its funding only complicates Colombia's already complex and unstable situation, as the country's democratic institutions further crumble.

Washington also has played a role in targeting Colombian unionists by having trained Colombian officers in union suppression techniques at the School of the Americas, newly renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. According to recently released training manuals, this Ft. Benning, Georgia institution encouraged soldiers to target those who do "union organizing or recruiting," those who pass out "propaganda in favor of the interests of the workers" or those who "sympathize with demonstrations or strikes." Unfortunately, the teachings of this Pentagon-funded school indicate that the U.S. government is at least partly responsible for the current plight of Colombian unionists.

A Brighter Future for Laborers?

If the plaintiffs are victorious, this case could be a landmark achievement not only for abused Colombian laborers, but also for workers exploited by foreign corporations around the world. Coca-Cola's conviction would demonstrate the Alien Tort Claims Act's plenary potential to try human rights violators outside of Colombia. Additionally, a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would lead employers to curb their abuse of unionists working at the in-country facilities of foreign corporations. This case may also alert international companies that they can be held responsible for inhumane treatment of workers by their affiliates and that cheap international labor does not validate lax working conditions and menacing security standards. Two questions remain, will the case be tried, or will Coca-Cola succeed in its motions to dismiss the charge, and how much damage will negative publicity do to Coca-Cola's and the Colombian government's reputations around the world?

Analysis prepared by Karen Smith, COHA Research Associate

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policymakers."

For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 216-9193, or email coha@coha.org


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