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Reign of terror at Colombian Coca-Cola plant

Reuters 9 August 2001
By Jason Webb

Bogota -- Hours after they gunned down Isidro Segundo Gil, paramilitaries broke into the office of the local union representing workers at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in northern Colombia and set their headquarters on fire, witnesses say.

The paramilitaries followed up the murder and arson -- which are described in a sealed Colombian criminal investigation seen by Reuters -- by calling a meeting of workers inside the plant, located in the northern Colombian town of Carepa. During the session, the workers were told to resign from their union by that afternoon or risk a bullet.

Gil's killing is the most chilling incident described in a lawsuit filed in a Miami district court in July whose allegations of abuses by management at locally owned Coca-Cola Co. bottling plants in Colombia have embarrassed the U.S. soft drink giant. The suit alleges that management at plants throughout Colombia used paramilitaries to crush unions with a terror campaign of threats, kidnap and murder.

In recent years, large parts of Colombia have fallen under the sway of paramilitaries -- illegal right-wing militias funded by businessmen and ranchers tired of blackmail and the threat of kidnap by left-wing guerrillas.

Gil, general secretary of the local union at the plant operated by the Bebidas y Alimentos de Uraba company, was murdered on Dec. 5, 1996. According to the findings of the official criminal investigation, two men on a motorbike came to get him at work where he was manning the bottling factory's gate.

They asked for him by name before shooting him four times in the head and then six times in the chest and testicles as he lay on the ground near a big Coca-Cola sign. Later in December, Sinaltrainal -- an abbreviated version of the Spanish name for the National Food Industry Workers' Union -- received 43 typed resignations, all with the same wording, from its members at Carepa. Other workers fled the town and some are still in hiding.

Investigation cleared plant manager

According to the investigation case file -- which is still officially sealed -- the plant manager and another senior worker admitted in testimony that paramilitaries had entered company premises, but said they were afraid to do anything about it. Other plant officials testified that they knew that paramilitaries had threatened unionized workers.

While finding that paramilitary forces were responsible for Gil's killing, the assailants were never caught and the inquiry cleared two plant officials of soliciting the murder in a bid to stamp out the union. The ``paras'' as they are known locally, have a tendency to regard unions as guerrilla fronts, and respond accordingly.

At least 112 Colombian unionists were killed in 2000, according to Amnesty International. After 37 years of guerrilla war, Colombia is locked into a vicious circle of violence and there are 25,000 killings here every year.

The owner of the Carepa plant, a U.S. citizen, was named as a defendant in the U.S. suit, together with the largest Coca-Coca bottler in Colombia, Panamerican Beverages, Inc. (Panamco), and the Coca-Cola Company itself. The United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund filed the case on behalf of Gil's estate and Sinaltrainal.

The Sinaltrainal union no longer has an office in Carepa.

Gil's alleged killers could not talk. At least one of the suspects was himself put to death just two months after carrying out the hit -- apparently the work of other paramilitaries one night when he was on his way to a cabaret show.

But even if the Carepa plant managers' defense of fear is true, they surely should have at least told the police, argues Gil family lawyer Pedro Mahecha: ``Even though they knew about the threats against the workers and the presence of known paramilitaries on company premises, we don't know of any complaints made by the company to the authorities.''

Worker in hiding due to threats

One former Carepa worker who declined to be named told Reuters that the paramilitaries tried to kill him after murdering Gil. He has lived in hiding for the past four years, with his wife and two daughters. Every once and a while, he says, the paramilitaries track him down and he has to move on again to another town.

``I had just got to work and I was in the warehouse working when I heard the first shot. I looked and Isidro was crumpling. I was the first to get to where he was lying, but when I got there he was already dead,'' he said.

"After they killed Isidro, a few days later the same guys held a meeting with some company workers and told them that it had been them who burned down the union office, that it had been them who killed Isidro and that from then on they wouldn't answer for the lives of anyone who talked about the union.

``Then, after that, they began to show up in the company, in groups of three of four. They'd hang around inside the company looking at what was going on and what wasn't going on, as if they were company workers,'' he said.

The Carepa bottler, which has a Coca-Cola licensing agreement, belongs to investors including U.S. citizen, and old Colombia hand, Richard Kirby, currently a resident of Florida.

Kirby's lawyer, William McCaughan, said that neither the businessman -- who is a former Panamco president -- nor his son, also called Richard and named in the lawsuit, had anything to do with paramilitaries or with the murder. He said they had hired managers to run the plant, which they oversaw from afar.

``The son has to my knowledge never ever been there and the father was there one time many years ago,'' McCaughan told Reuters by telephone from the United States.

Panamco firmly denied having any links to paramilitaries and said it might sue those making accusations relating to its plants. Panamco bottles Coke for about 95 percent of Colombia, and the U.S. soft drink giant has a minority share holding in its main shareholder, Panamerican Beverages.

But Sinaltrainal says that five of its members at Coca-Cola bottling plants have been killed since 1984, three of them during contractual negotiations.

In another recent incident, a worker at a Panamco bottling plant in Cucuta said he was kidnapped by armed men who told him to stop making trouble for Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola says has nothing to do with incidents

A spokesman for Coca-Cola in Colombia, Pablo Largacha, said in a statement that the U.S. firm denied any wrongdoing in the war-torn country. He added that Coca-Cola was concerned by the allegations of abuses, but did not believe its bottlers had been involved.

This is not the first time that Coca-Cola has been embarrassed by alleged abuses at its bottling plants. The U.S. company withdrew a bottling agreement from a plant in Guatemala in the early 1980s after international labor activists protested the murder of three local union leaders in a row and an attack made against a fourth.

Sinaltrainal's national president, Javier Correa, says there is a pattern of harassment at Coca-Cola bottling plants around Colombia. He says he often receives death threats.

``I am always getting threats over the phone at my house. The last time they left a message saying 'We're going to cut you up,' and they turned on a chain saw,'' he said at the union's headquarters in Bogota.

Chain saws have been used in some of the most horrific mass killings carried out by the paramilitaries -- whose regular massacres of suspected guerrilla collaborators have spread fear through much of Colombia's countryside.

Much of the paramilitaries' brutality can be traced back to the 1980s, when Colombia's cocaine lords started financing their own paramilitary gangs.

Recent investigations have exposed links between paramilitaries and sectors of the army, but President Andres Pastrana has made an effort to break this connection.

Correa said most workers for Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia were now non-unionized subcontractors.

At the Carepa plant, the union had presented a formal request to negotiate working conditions with the company at the end of November 1996. Sinaltrainal says that, under Colombian law, the last day for the company to reply was Dec. 5 -- the same day Gil was killed.

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