Reign of Terror at Colombian Coca-Cola plant
By Jason Webb
August 9, 2002
BOGOTA, Colombia, Mr. Isidro Segundo Gil was murdered by paramilitaries who also caused a fire at the office of the local union which represents workers at a Coca-Cola bottling plant, witnesses said.
They then called a meeting of workers inside the plant in the Colombian town of Carepa. They told the workers to resign from their union by that afternoon or risk a bullet.
A lawsuit was filed in a Miami district court in July regarding this action whose allegations of abuses by management at locally owned Coca-Cola Company bottling plants in Colombia have embarrassed the US 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 the 1990s, large parts of Colombia have been controlled by paramilitaries, which are illegal right-wing militias funded by businessmen and ranchers tired of blackmail and the threat of kidnap by left-wing guerrillas.
Gil, who was the general secretary of the local union at the plant operated by the Bebidas y Alimentos de Uraba company, was murdered on December 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 MANAGERS
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.
The paramilitaries were never caught and the inquiry cleared two plant officials of soliciting the murder in an effort to close the union.
The "paras" as they are known locally, have a tendency to regard unions as guerrilla fronts, and respond accordingly.
Amnesty International reported that at least 112 Colombian unionists were killed in 2000. After 37 years of guerrilla warfare, Colombia is locked into a vicious circle of violence where there are 25,000 killings every year.
The owner of the Carepa plant, a US citizen, was named as a defendant in the US 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.
Gil's alleged killers could not talk because they were put to death just two months after carrying out the hit.
Gil family lawyer Pedro Mahecha feels that the managers should have told the police even though they knew about the threats against the workers and the presence of known paramilitaries on company premises. No complaints were 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 family. Every once and a while, he says, the paramilitaries track him down and he has to move on again to another town.
He heard the first shot. He saw that Isidro was crumpling. He arrived where he was lying, but he was already dead.
Several of them began to show up in the company. They loitered as if they were workers.
The Carepa bottler, which has a Coca-Cola licensing agreement, belongs to investors including US citizen, and old Colombia hand, Richard Kirby, who lives in Florida.
Kirby's lawyer, William McCaughan, said that neither the businessman, who is a former Panamco president, nor his son, also named 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 Coca-Cola for about 95 percent of Colombia, and the US 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 IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH INCIDENTS
A spokesman for Coca-Cola in Colombia, Pablo Largacha, said in a statement that the US 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.
Coca-Cola has been embarrassed by alleged abuses at its bottling plants previously. It 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.
Death threats are common. 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.
A good deal 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, but most workers for Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia are 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 December 5th, the same day Gil was killed.