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Coca Cola To Be Sued For Ties To Colombia Death Squads

by Jim Lobe

A Primer on the War in Colombia
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Labor rights activists are suing Coca-Cola, the giant U.S.-based multinational beverage company, for the killings and intimidation of union leaders at several of its bottling plants in Colombia.

The lawsuit, to be filed July 20 in a Miami federal court, charges that Coke, by failing to prevent its bottlers in Colombia from bringing in right-wing paramilitary death squads to break up unions at its plants, bears responsibility for the abuses, including murder and torture, under both U.S. and state law.

A Coca-Cola spokesman, Rafael Fernandez, said the Atlanta-based company was not at fault. "We deny any wrongdoing regarding human rights in Colombia or anywhere else," he said, adding that the company had no "specific information" regarding abuses at its bottling plants there.

Also named as defendants in the lawsuit, which is being brought by the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) and the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), are the bottlers themselves, Miami-based Panamco and Bebidas y Alimentos, a company owned by Richard Kirby and his son, Richard Kirby Keilland, both U.S. citizens living in Key Biscayne, Florida.

No one answered the phone listed for the Kirbys, while a Panamco employee said that its management was attending a board meeting and was unavailable for comment.

Plaintiffs include SINALTRAINAL, a Colombian trade union that represents workers at a number of beverage and food companies in Colombia; the survivors of Isidro Segundo Gil, who was murdered by paramilitary forces inside the Carepa bottling plant in 1995, and several other union members who allegedly have been subjected to the paramilitaries' campaign of violence and intimidation.

The case is being brought in part to highlight the appalling plight of Colombian labor unionists, several thousand of whom have been murdered over the past 15 years -- a record that has drawn the attention of the International Labor Organization (ILO), among others.

"There has been a very concerted campaign against trade unionists for many years and it seems to have even stepped up in recent months," according to Robin Kirk, a Colombia expert at Human Rights Watch.

"Of every five trade unionists murdered in the world, three are Colombian," said Dan Kovalik, a USWA lawyer. He said more than 50 trade union leaders have been killed so far this year, including Oscar Dario Soto Polo, an employee and union official at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Monertia who was gunned down June 21.

A campaign of intimidation that culminated in murder
The case also is being brought as the House of Representatives considers a request by President George W. Bush to add some $400 million in economic and military aid to $1.3 billion already approved for Plan Colombia, an effort to help government forces gain control of coca-growing regions.

The request has run into unexpectedly strong resistance, especially among Democrats, who are concerned that the money would only fuel abuses, particularly by right-wing paramilitary forces that have been supported by military commanders in the past.

The paramilitaries, which human rights groups claim are responsible for most of the violence in Colombia, have often acted as hired guns for big landowners and private companies, precisely to discourage workers from organizing.

The case is based primarily on the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 200-year-old law that permits foreigners to sue anyone for damages arising from grave human rights abuses committed abroad. The only constraint is that defendants must be served on U.S. territory.

The Act has been used with striking success in gaining big judgments against individuals, including about a dozen foreign heads of state and senior military officers, in lawsuits brought over the past 15 years. Its use against corporations is relatively untested.

The ILRF helped bring a suit against UNOCAL, the California-based energy company, for its alleged complicity with Burma's military government in drafting forced labor to build a pipeline, but that case remains in the courts. Last month, it filed another case against ExxonMobil for Mobil's alleged backing for military abuses in Aceh, Indonesia.

At the Carepa bottling plant, according to the 60-page complaint, paramilitary forces murdered two activists in April 1994 and then were invited by management at Bebidos y Alimentos to come onto the premises to threaten other members of the local SINALTRAINAL leadership if they did not resign from the union or flee the town altogether. In 1995, every member of the union's executive board left.

When the union elected a new board, management hired members of the paramilitaries to work in the sales and production departments. They carried out a campaign of intimidation that included death threats against specific board members and culminated in the murder inside the plant of Isidro Segundo Gil in Dec 1996.

At Panamco's Coca-Cola plant in Bucaramanga, the plaintiffs allege that five members of the local union executive board were falsely accused in 1996 of planting a bomb on the premises during a labor dispute, were badly beaten by local police, and were incarcerated in terrible conditions for six months before the regional prosecutor found that the charges were groundless and ordered them released.

At Panamco's Cucata and Barrancabermeja plants, the local union officials have been forced into hiding after receiving death threats, from paramilitaries beginning in 1999, in connection with their union work. In Barrancabermeja, plant management has openly collaborated with and supported the paramilitaries, according to the complaint.

In each case, the union repeatedly asked Coca-Cola Colombia and the bottling company's management for protection. "Coke did nothing," said Kovalik.

In all these cases, according to Terry Collingsworth, ILRF's chief attorney, the bottlers effectively acted as Coca-Cola's agent due to the degree of control the soft drink company exercised over their operations under the standard bottling contract.

"We are confident that if any of these plants make a mistake in applying Coca-Cola's formula or in delivering Coke, they would be there to correct it," said Kovalik. "But in cases where they kill union leaders, they do nothing."

Collingsworth pointed out that, in a similar case in Guatemala 20 years ago, Coke arranged for the bottling plant owner, John Trotter, to sell his franchise. Trotter was accused of using death squads to kill several union officials between 1978 and 1979. After the sale, the repression at the plant ceased.

But in the case of the Carepa plant, Coke turned down an offer by the Kirbys to sell the plant in 1997, despite reports that the elder Kirby had specifically threatened to kill union leaders before Gil's death.

"There is no question that Coke knew about and benefited from the systematic repression of trade union rights at its bottling plants in Colombia, and this case will make the company accountable," said Collingsworth.

Coke's Fernandez denied, however, that the company received "any notice from Colombian police or anybody of any wrongdoing" in any of the plants. "It is not true that the agreement (between the bottlers and the company) gives us control," he added, noting that Coke expects all its employees and associates to abide by a business code of conduct dating back to 1980.

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Albion Monitor July 19, 2001 (

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