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SAN FRANCISCO, CA (11/24/01) -- After the leader of their union was shot down at the gate into the plant where they worked, Edgar Paez and his coworkers at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Carepa, Colombia, tried for four years to get the country's courts to bring the people responsible to justice. Instead, some of the workers themselves wound up behind bars, while they watched the murderers go free.
Believing Colombian courts incapable of ensuring justice, they decided to haul Coca Cola into the US courts instead. To help them, they found a powerful US union.
This summer, the Colombian union, SINALTRAINAL, together with the United Steel Workers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund, filed a case in Florida against Coca Cola, Inc., Panamerican Beverages (the largest soft-drink bottler in Latin America, with a 60-year history with Coke), and Bebidas y Alimentos (owned by Richard Kirby of Key Biscayne, Florida, which operates the Carepa plant.) The three companies are charged with complicity in the assassination of Colombian union leaders. The unions hope this new strategy will stop a wave of murders of union militants that's lasted over a decade. Colombian unionists have since been traveling the United States, gathering support for the case and future similar actions.
The Florida case charges that at 8:30AM December 5, 1996, a rightwing paramilitary squad of the United Self Defense Forces (AUC) showed up at the gate into the Carepa bottling plant. Isidro Segundo Gil, a member of the union's executive board, went to see what they wanted. They opened fire, killing him. An hour later, paramilitaries kidnapped another leader of the union at his home, who escaped and fled to Bogota. That evening, they broke into the union's office, and burned it down.
The next day, a heavily-armed group went inside the bottling plant, and called the workers together. "They said that if they didn't resign by 4PM, the same thing would happen to them that happened to Gil - they would be killed," recalls Paez.
Coca Cola spokesperson Rafael Fernandez asserts the company's code of conduct requires respect for human rights. Coke's Colombia spokesperson, Pedro Largacha, claims "bottlers in Colombia are completely independent of the Coca-Cola Company." The bottler, Bebidas y Alimentos, says it had no way to stop the paramilitaries.
"You don't use them, they use you," Kirby stated. "Nobody tells the paramilitaries what to do."
But the suit charges that plant manager Ariosto Milan Mosquera, who had a history of partying with the paramilitaries, gave them the order to destroy the union. Paez says not only were the plant's managers responsible, but that Coke benefited. "At the time of Gil's death we were involved in negotiations with the company," he says. "They never negotiated with the union after that. Twenty seven workers in twelve departments left the plant and the area. All the workers had to quit the union to save their own lives, and the union was completely destroyed. For two months, the paramilitaries camped just outside the plant gate. Coca Cola never complained to the authorities."
The resignation forms, the suit claims, were prepared by the company. The experienced workers who left the plant, who had been earning $380-400 a month, were replaced by new employees at minimum wage -- $130/month.
During a subsequent investigation by the Colombian Justice Ministry, the plant's director and production manger were detained, along with a local paramilitary leader. All three were later released without charges.
The assassinations were neither the first nor the last among union leaders in Colombian Coke plants. In 1994 two other union activists, Jose David and Luis Granado, were also murdered in Carepa, and paramilitaries demanded workers quit the union. In 1989, Jose Avelino Chicano was killed in the Pasto plant. This year a union leader at the Bucaramanga plant, Oscar Dario Soto Polo, was murdered.
When the union denounced the killings, the plant's chief of security, Jose Alejo Aponte, charged its leaders with terrorism. Five were jailed for six months. At the Barrancabermeja plant a graffiti was scrawled on the walls -- "Get Out Galvis From Coca Cola, Signed AUC." Juan Carlos Galvis is the president of the plant's union.
"One of our biggest problems in Colombia is that social protest in general is being criminalized," Paez charges.
According to another Colombian unionist, Samuel Morales of the Unified Confederation of Workers (CUT), the country's largest union federation, "in many ways, transnational corporations virtually govern the states in which they operate. And in our country, it's become a crime to speak out forcefully against them. They get cheap labor by weakening unions and getting rid of long term workers."
By October, 125 Colombian trade union leaders had been murdered this year alone. Last year's assassinations cost the lives of 129 others -- out of every 5 trade unionists killed in the world, 3 were Colombian.
Paramilitaries are held responsible for almost all trade union assassinations. Robin Kirk, who monitors human rights abuses in Colombia for Human Rights Watch, says that there are strong ties between the AUC and the Colombian military. "The Colombian military and intelligence apparatus has been virulently anti-Communist since the 1950s," she says, "and they look at trade unionists as subversives - as a very real and potential threat."
"They believe it's a crime," adds Morales, "to present any alternative, any option for social change -- just to struggle for workers rights and needs. The paramilitaries don't act by themselves. In Colombia, they're called the army's 'sixth division.'"
Despite the wave of death and violence, U.S. aid to the Colombian armed forces has grown rapidly. Under Plan Colombia, the U.S. has funneled over $1 billion into the country, almost entirely in military assistance. Paez charges the US-funded drug war is a pretext for protecting transnational investors. "Plan Colombia's objective is the elimination of movements for social change in our country," he says. "That creates a much more favorable environment for the exploitation of our natural resources and our labor force."
One objective of the Coke suit is to pressure the Colombian and US governments to comply with the conventions of the International Labor Organization and the Geneva Accords on Human Rights. But Colombian unions would also like to see those responsible for the murders brought to justice.
"We want to strip off the mask hiding the involvement of transnational corporations in our internal conflict," Paez explains. "To do this, we need a judicial forum outside the country, since within Colombia those guilty of these crimes are treated with impunity. In this particular case, those responsible include Coca Cola. But they're not the only company pursuing policies which violate human rights. We're giving our own global answer to their global operations."
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