Wednesday, July 11, 2007


A jury in Birmingham, Alabama is right now hearing evidence that an executive with the Alabama-based coal company Drummond paid a right-wing paramilitary unit to kill union leaders who were organizing mine workers in Colombia.

The suit was filed in 2002 under the Alien Tort Claims Act, Torture Victim Protection Act and state tort law. It alleges that Drummond "hired, contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced" leaders of the union representing workers at Drummond facilities in Colombia. The murders occurred while contract negotiations with Drummond were underway.

As twilight fell on March 12, 2001, at Drummond Ltd.'s coal mine near La Loma, Colombia, union leaders Valmore Locarno and Victor Orcasita boarded a company bus with their coworkers for the ride home. A few miles into the journey, gunmen stopped the bus and took the two men away. They killed Locarno on the spot, according to a complaint by family members.

Orcasita was bound and driven away, tortured, and found dead with bullet wounds in his head. Months later, Locarno's successor as union president, Gustavo Soler, also was slain, according to the civil complaint.

During the proceedings jurors will hear details of violence against union workers in Colombia, where 2,500 have been killed since 1986, according to the National Trade Union School, which monitors labor rights in the country.

Bloomberg is reporting Attorney Herman ``Rusty'' Johnson, who represents families of the three men, has stated gunmen killed the leaders who got death threats in 2001 after complaining about conditions at Drummond's mine near La Loma. Drummond allied with paramilitaries against guerrillas in a decades-old conflict in Colombia, Johnson said.

``Drummond made a couple of choices,'' Johnson said in opening statements in Birmingham, Alabama. ``They chose to go down to a war zone to conduct their coal-mining operations and make some money. They made a choice in the war. They chose the paramilitaries. They chose union leaders for elimination.''

Johnson told the jury Locarno complained publicly about the need for protective equipment and showers for workers. He said Drummond officials made a series of threatening comments, including one by company president Augusto Jimenez.

``Jimenez stated that `the fish dies by opening his mouth,''' Johnson told the jury. ``That's not a phrase that we use here in the U.S. but we should all be able to figure out what that means. If you talk too much, if you campaign, if you protest, then you end up dead.''

The following is from The Independent (UK).

US mining firm in dock over Colombia murders

The bus carrying 50 tired and grimy miners had just left La Loma mine when gunmen forced it to stop and dragged two union leaders off. One was shot dead on the spot, the gunmen pumping four bullets into his head. The other was tortured and then killed. Six months later another union leader who had come to the mine was also assassinated.

The men, members of the Sintramienergetica union, had been trying to improve the appalling and unsafe working conditions at a United States-owned mine, which sends huge amounts of coal from Colombia to Europe and North America.

Six years later, a federal court in Birmingham, Alabama, is trying the privately owned coal company, Drummond, for war crimes. This week it heard evidence that the company ordered those killings in March 2001.

It was alleged that a union treasurer, Jimmy Rubio, saw a Drummond official pay a paramilitary leader to carry out the murders. Mr Rubio has been in hiding since his father-in-law was murdered just before he was to give a deposition in the case. The outcome of the trial could have huge implications for several dozen American multinationals being sued under a formerly obscure law, the alien tort claims Act, which was once used to combat piracy.

The 214-year-old law has been used by human rights groups to attack some of the best-known names in corporate America: Exxon Mobil, Chevron Texaco, Del Monte, Citigroup and Bank of America. Five companies, including a Coca-Cola bottler, have been accused by the same trade union of hiring paramilitary groups to kill union leaders.

Chiquita, the banana company, recently admitted paying right-wing militias to protect its Colombia operations. It was fined $25m (£12.5m) this year for giving $1.7m to the militias from 1997-2004. Chiquita said the regular monthly payments by its wholly owned subsidiary Banadex were "to protect the lives of its employees". Such practices were widespread among multinationals in Colombia. The allegation against Drummond is that it used paramilitary violence to keep wages down.

"They thought they could get away with anything, literally get away with murder," said the union's lawyer, Daniel Kovalik. The Bush administration has tried to block the lawsuits, saying they interfere with foreign policy.

The Washington-based International Labour Rights Fund has filed many of the 26 lawsuits. It faces the hurdle of proving links between company policy and human rights abuses. Terry Collingsworth, director of the rights fund, said the purpose of the suits was not to win damages, but to change business practices.

For Colombia, the murders of the three Drummond organisers - Valmore Locarno and his deputy, Victor Orcasita, as well as his successor, Gustavo Soler, who was murdered six months later - were routine. Nearly 90 per cent of trade union leaders killed worldwide die there. Few of the murders are ever resolved. At least 800 union organisers have been killed since 2001. Many have simply fled the country.

Lawyers for families of the three men say the killers "were acting as employees or agents" of the company and have charged it with war crimes in a civil court action under the alien tort legislation, which allows foreigners to file civil lawsuits against US corporations for their conduct overseas.

The families say the war crimes claim is valid because armed groups have been killing each other for decades in Colombia's civil war and that by paying off paramilitaries Drummond had itself committed criminal human rights violations. The lawsuit alleges that Drummond intimidated union activists by allowing "known paramilitaries to freely enter their mining facilities" and permitted pamphlets to be handed out accusing union members of being part of a "guerrilla union".

Drummond, one of the largest coal-mining companies in the world, denies any involvement with the paramilitaries. For decades, landowners and businesses have used private militias to protect them from the guerrillas. And Drummond says the court must first prove that the workers were not associated with these guerrillas. The company, which opened its 25,000-acre Pribbenow mine in 1995, produces about 25 million tons a year, and earns about $2bn a year. Left-wing rebels have bombed the trains that take coal to the coast at least 40 times. And Drummond also pays the government to station several hundred soldiers at the mine.

The union's leaders say they still fear for their lives, and now have the support of the miners' union in Alabama, where 2,000 miners have been sacked since the Eighties when Drummond began investing in Colombia.

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