A lawsuit filed in a Miami federal court accuses the Coca-Cola
Company, its Colombian subsidiary and business affiliates of collaborating
with paramilitary death squads to threaten, kidnap and murder union
leaders at its Colombian bottling plants.
The lawsuit was filed on July 20 by the United
Steelworkers of America and the Washington-based International
Labor Rights Fund on behalf of Sinaltrainal, the union that
represents Colombian Coca-Cola workers, the estate of murdered union
leader Isidro Segundo Gil and five other unionists who worked for
Coca-Cola and were targeted by paramilitaries. "We are filing this
case to show our solidarity with the embattled trade unions of Colombia,"
says Steelworkers President Leo Gerard.
Colombia has long been the most dangerous country in the world
for union members
with 3,800 murdered in the past 15 years. Three out of every five
trade unionists killed in the world are Colombian. Last year alone,
128 Colombian labor leaders were assassinated. Most of the killings
have been carried out by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia
(AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group that views union organizers
as subversives. The most recent killing occurred on June 21 when Sinaltrainal
leader Oscar Dario Soto Polo was gunned down.
Paramilitaries scrawled graffiti
a wall after a raid on Peque,
Colombia that left 11 dead.
The plaintiffs are claiming U.S. jurisdiction under the Alien Tort
Claims Act, which allows non-U.S. citizens to sue Americans for
violations of international law. According to the complaint, Coca-Cola
Colombia, as well as two Florida-based companies, Panamco and Bebidas
y Alimentos, which bottle and distribute Coca-Cola products in Colombia,
are legally required to abide by Coca-Cola's code of conduct regarding
their operations and labor relations. Coca-Cola reserves the right
to regulate environmental protections, impose standards concerning
employee qualifications, and monitor treatment of employees. The
plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount of compensation and
an end to the human rights abuses. "Their code of conduct shows
that they are legally responsible," says Terry Collingsworth of
the International Labor Rights Fund, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
"These companies come up with these codes and then don't enforce
them." (Coca-Cola denies any wrongdoing.)
Among the plaintiffs' evidence that Coca-Cola collaborated with
paramilitaries is a 1996 incident in which Ariosto Milan Mosquera,
plant manager at Bebidas y Alimentos' bottling facility in Carepa,
publicly stated that he had ordered paramilitaries to quash the
union. Union members claim that Mosquera often socialized with paramilitary
fighters and even provided them with Coca-Cola products for their
fiestas. Shortly after Mosquera's pronouncement, local members of
Sinaltrainal began receiving threats from the paramilitaries.
On September 27, 1996, Sinaltrainal sent a letter to the Colombian
headquarters of both Bebidas y Alimentos and Coca-Cola Colombia
informing them of Mosquera's threats against the union and requesting
intervention on their behalf. On December 5, Bebidas y Alimentos
employee and local Sinaltrainal executive board member Isidro Segundo
Gil was killed by paramilitaries inside the Carepa bottling plant.
The other union board members were also threatened with death if
they did not leave town.
Two days later, paramilitaries entered the plant and told employees
they had three choices: resign from the union, leave Carepa, or
be killed. According to eyewitnesses, the workers were then led
into the manager's office to sign union resignation forms prepared
by the company. Bebidas y Alimentos owner Richard Kirby, who is
also a defendant in the case, says the company has no control over
paramilitary activity and that the facts regarding the murder of
Segundo Gil have been distorted. "You don't use them, they use you,"
he says. "Nobody tells the paramilitaries what to do. One day they
showed up at the plant. They shut it down, put everyone against
the wall and started shooting. Now it has been turned around so
that it's our fault."
The targeting of labor leaders is not limited to Carepa. In 1996,
at Panamco's Bucaramanga bottling plant, local members of Sinaltrainal
went on a five-day strike to protest the company's elimination of
employee medical insurance. After the strike ended, according to
the complaint, Panamco chief of security Jose Alejo Aponte, accused
five members of the local Sinaltrainal executive board of planting
a bomb in the plant.
The five union leaders (three of whom are plaintiffs in the lawsuit)
were imprisoned based on charges filed, according to official court
documents, under the name of Coca-Cola, not Panamco. The union leaders
were released six months later when the regional prosecutor declared
the plaintiffs could not have planted the alleged bomb because it
was never there.
According to the plaintiffs, local management at Panamco's Barrancabermeja
plant have sided openly with the paramilitaries in the civil war
and publicly accused Sinaltrainal members of being guerrillas. Given
the volatile situation in Barrancabermeja, home to the most intense
urban warfare in Colombia, such an accusation is tantamount to a
The plaintiffs also are in the process of filing an injunction
against Panamco calling for them to cease and desist from tampering
with witnesses. Panamco, meanwhile, has issued a public statement
denying the allegations contained in the lawsuit. According to Collingsworth,
the company then presented the denial to its employees and ordered
them to sign a blank piece of paper that could be used against them
"There is no question that Coke knew about, and benefits from,
the systematic repression of unions at its bottling plants in Colombia,"
Collingsworth says. "This case will make the company accountable."