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Coke Can't Hide Its Crimes In Colombia

Coke Can't Hide Its Crimes In Colombia

Isidro Segundo Gil, an employee at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Colombia, was killed at his workplace by paramilitary thugs. His children, now living in hiding with relatives, understand all too well why their homeland is known as "a country where union work is like carrying a tombstone on your back."

A chilling description of Gil's assassination, based on eyewitness accounts, is the centerpiece of a lawsuit filed in Miami in July 2001 against Coca-Cola, Panamerican Beverages (the largest soft drink bottler in Latin America) and Bebidas y Alimentos (a bottler owned by Richard Kirby of Key Biscayne, Fla., which operates the plant in which Gil was killed.

In the lawsuit, Gil's union, Sinaltrainal, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) and the United Steelworkers of America assert that the Coke bottlers "contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders."

Minutes after the thugs showed up at the Carepa plant gate, they fired 10 shots at Gil, a member of the union executive board, mortally wounding him. An hour later, another union leader was kidnapped at his home. That evening, a building that housed the union's offices, equipment and records was set ablaze.

The next day, a heavily armed group returned to the plant, called the workers together and told them if they didn't quit the union by 4 p.m., they, too, would be killed. Resignation forms were prepared in advance by Coca-Cola's plant manager, who had a history of socializing with the paramilitaries and had earlier "given (them) an order to carry out the task of destroying the union," the lawsuit says.

Fearing for their lives, union members at Carepa resigned en masse and fled the area. The company broke off contract negotiations, the paramilitaries camped outside the plant gate for the next two months, and the union was crushed. Experienced workers who made about $380 a month were replaced by new hires earning minimum wage ($130 a month).

No charges were ever filed against Gil's killers or those who killed at least seven other Coca-Cola unionists. Like many multinational corporations, Coke tries to have it both ways: tightly controlling the manufacture and distribution of its products overseas and collecting the profits, but denying any responsibility to workers. But the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1789, may hold the key to securing justice for foreign victims of corporate abuses.

Several companies now being sued under the ATCA claim to adhere to one or more "voluntary" initiatives (like Coca-Cola's so-called Code of Conduct) that commit them to respect human rights abroad. Unfortunately, enforcement has proven impossible.

In essence, the ATCA permits foreigners to sue in U.S. courts for violations of fundamental human rights that are clearly defined under international law. It applies to "the law of nations," which federal courts have interpreted to cover genocide, war crimes, extrajudicial killings, torture, unlawful detention and crimes against humanity.

Recently, the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce, representing thousands of companies worldwide, urged the U.S. government to stop the growing use of the ATCA to sue multinationals. It's "unacceptable," they said.

"It shocks the conscience that these companies seek to immunize themselves from charges of human rights violations," says ILRF attorney Terry Collingsworth.

Javier Correa, president of Sinaltrainal, adds: "We want justice. We want people to know the truth about what is going on in Colombia against Coke workers. Now that you know, will you please help us?"


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