IT'S THE REAL THING - MURDERS AT COKE
By David Bacon
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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 --
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
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.
of our biggest problems in Colombia is that social protest in general is
being criminalized," Paez charges.
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."
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
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."
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.'"
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
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
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
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