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Drummond coal gets away with murder in Colombia

By Chapin Gray

Birmingham, AL – On July 26, Drummond Co., a Birmingham-based coal company, was found ‘not liable’ in the deaths Colombian trade unionists Valmore Locarno and Victor Orcasita – the head of a union local and his deputy – as well as the next union president Gustavo Soler. The three leaders of the Sintamienergética miners union worked at the Drummond’s La Loma mine in northern Colombia. They were tortured and murdered in 2001.

Lawyers from the International Labor Rights Fund and the United Steelworkers brought the case to U.S. courts under the rarely-used Alien Torte Claims Act of 1789 – originally meant to protect other countries against piracy – to expose Drummond’s involvement with the right-wing paramilitary (the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) and the U.S. government’s support for the corruption and violence against workers in Colombia.

The cards were stacked in Drummond’s favor from the start. The Bush-appointed Judge Bowdre threw out the wrongful death charge before the trial even began, which left the plaintiffs the difficult task of proving the murders constituted a war crime. Key witnesses who could have convinced the jury that Drummond was at fault were not allowed to testify. One of those witnesses, Rafael Garcia, saw Drummond’s top Colombian executive Augusto Jimenez hand over a briefcase containing $200,000 in cash to a well-known paramilitary member.

During the trial, other witnesses like Sintamienergética union treasurer Francisco Ruiz were flown in from Colombia and testified to Drummond’s lack of concern for its workers’ safety, as evidenced by the poor working and housing conditions in La Loma, as well as the company’s refusal to act when union leaders’ lives were repeatedly threatened. For instance, Drummond would not allow workers – who were in the middle of contract negotiations with the company and had been threatened by the paramilitary – to sleep in between shifts on company grounds for security. And this despite the fact that Colombia is notorious for being one of the most dangerous places in the world for trade unionist, hundreds of whom are murdered in Colombia each year.

However, it was more than simple negligence on the part of Drummond; even more damning was the fact that several witnesses, including retired army sergeant Edwin Manuel Guzmán and former security guard Isnardo Ropero González, say Drummond regularly paid the paramilitaries as well as allowed them free range at the mine.

Drummond claims the acquittal proves its innocence, and maintains that the company only pays the Colombian military for protection. However the facts of the case and the situation in Colombia as a whole suggest otherwise. Under the guise of a ‘war on drugs,’ the U.S. government has given billions of dollars under Plan Colombia to protect U.S. business interests, fund death squads, and quell peoples’ movements for social and economic justice.

“No one else but Drummond had an interest in murdering and terrorizing these trade union leaders,” said Jim Toweill of the Tuscaloosa chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). “Drummond benefits from the violence against Colombians – with an absence of strong unions, the company is free to exploit the workers for its own gain. Both the U.S. government and the Colombian government under Colombian President Uribe work to protect the interests of the multinationals and use paramilitary death squads to carry out their dirty work. That Drummond got off scot-free only proves that the U.S. courts are corrupt, and serve the interests of big business, not of justice.”

This is not the first incident where U.S. multinationals have been caught red handed working shoulder-to-shoulder with the Colombian paramilitary. In recent years, organizations like the Colombia Action Network have campaigned against Coca-Cola and Chiquita, who also face heat for their role in human rights abuses in their Colombian plants and for giving arranging and funding the murders of workers who were trying to improve working conditions. As news spreads about Drummond’s role in the murders, European power companies such as DONG of Denmark and Essent of the Netherlands have pledged to stop purchasing Drummond coal.

The trial did have some positive outcomes for working people. The case paved the way for other U.S. corporations operating in Latin America to be tried in U.S. courts and held accountable for their crimes against workers. While Drummond will not suffer from negative publicity like companies that depend heavily on name recognition, such as Chiquita and Coca-Cola, the trial was observed by people all over the world. Local activists and students were inspired to demand justice for Drummond workers and all Colombians who are under attack from the U.S. government and multinational corporations.

“We will continue this semester to take a stand against the actions of U.S. corporations and the U.S. government in Colombia, especially if the case is appealed,” said Toweill, who helped organize the picket against Drummond in July. “Drummond is not acting alone. They have the support of both the Colombian and U.S. government. The corporations are arranging assassinations; the U.S. is sending billions of dollars of aid to the corrupt Uribe administration under Plan Colombia. Our campaign against Drummond is also a campaign to end stop Plan Colombia and U.S. intervention in Latin America.”

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