BLOOD FOR COAL
By David Bacon
WASHINGTON, DC (8/20/01) - Every summer, supporters of human rights
in Congress seek to derail the huge budget for Plan Colombia. This July,
however, the military aid the US has been sending to one side of that
country's civil war wasn't the only reason Colombia wound up in the middle
of Congressional debate. The heated controversy surrounding the
administration's energy policy, passed in the House on July 31, laid bare a
growing economic reason why the U.S. is being drawn into that conflict.
And it's not drugs. It's coal.
Stepping up U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, especially coal,
produces more than environmental consequences. One of the main countries
now a source for coal burned in U.S. power plants is Colombia. And in
Colombia, U.S. energy, military and trade policy are becoming intertwined
with devastating consequences for the country's labor movement.
"Deaths due to political violence [have] roughly doubled from
previous years," Massachusetts Democrat John F. Tierney told fellow
Congress members on the House floor in early July. "These are innocent
people trying to make Colombia a safer and more prosperous place, like
Cristobol Uribe Beltran of the Association of Workers and Employees in
Hospitals, Clinics and Organizations, who was kidnapped on June 27th and
assassinated the very next day. Innocent lives [are being] brought to an
end for no legitimate reason. This is not progress."
Leading a union often means losing a job, even blacklisting. In
many countries, it can bring imprisonment by governments who view unions as
a threat to the social and economic elite. But in some countries, election
to union office carries even greater peril. And the most dangerous country
by far is Colombia, where labor activism is often punished with death.
By mid-May, 44 Colombian trade union leaders had been violently
murdered this year alone. Last year's assassinations cost the lives of 129
others. The National Labor School, a non-governmental institute which
supports the country's labor movement, reports that 1500 have been killed
in the past decade. And according to Hector Fajardo, general secretary of
Colombia's largest union federation, the Unified Confederation of Workers
(CUT), 3,800 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia since 1986.
Las year, out of every 5 trade unionists killed in the world, 3 were
Colombian, according to a recent report by the United Steel Workers.
U.S. unions increasingly point to a network of administration
policies which contribute to the targeting of Colombian unionists. The
U.S.' Plan Colombia provides over $1 billion to Colombia's military,
justified as necessary to suppress cocaine production. In reality,
however, organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International
have documented extensively that aid provided by Plan Colombia supports
activities by rightwing paramilitary groups, who in turn target trade union
At the same time, Bush administration energy policies encourage the
use of coal in U.S. power plants, and millions of tons are now mined in the
midst of Colombia's civil war by U.S. corporations. Privatization of
Colombian mines and oil fields, pushed by the International Monetary Fund,
is leading to the further concentration of those operations in the hands of
large U.S. corporations. Meanwhile, free-market economic reforms, also
pushed by the IMF, are provoking a wave of resistance by Colombian workers,
which is being met by violent repression.
The fact that U.S. unions have something to say about Colombia is
itself a big change. In the days of the cold war, American labor defended
administration policies in Latin America, and saw Colombian unions as
dangerously radical. Today unions like the United Steel Workers are trying
hard to break with that history. Human rights abuses in Colombia, they
say, have a direct impact on U.S. workers and union members. A low-wage
Colombian workforce, whose labor rights are attacked and union leaders
murdered, gives U.S. companies a low-cost advantage in moving production
One of the cases they point to is that of two murdered coal miners.
In mid-March, Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Victor Hugo Orcasita
were riding from their jobs at the Loma coal mine in northern Colombia.
Locarno Rodriguez and Orcasita were chairman and vice-chairman of the union
at the mine, a local of Sintramienergetica, one of Colombia's two coal
miners' unions. As the company bus neared Valledupar, 30 miles from the
mine, it was stopped by 15 gunmen, some in military uniforms. They began
checking the identification of the workers, and when they found the two
union leaders, they were pulled off the bus.
Locarno has hit in the heat with a rifle butt. One of the gunmen
then shot him in the face, as his fellow workers on the bus watched in
horror. Orcasita was taken off into the woods at the side of the road.
There he was tortured. When his body was later found, his fingernails had
been torn off.
Protesting the deaths, 1200 miners at Loma briefly stopped work.
The Loma mine is owned by a U.S. multinational corporation,
Drummond Co., Inc., based in Birmingham, Alabama. Drummond opened the Loma
mine in 1994, and it is now Colombia's second largest. At first, according
to Ken Zinn, North American regional coordinator of the International
Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions, the
company promised workers in its U.S. mines that its Colombian coal wouldn't
be imported into the U.S. to compete with its U.S. operations. But since
1994, Drummond has closed 5 mines in Alabama, laying off 1700 members of
the United Mine Workers. Its one remaining U.S. mine employs about 500
Last year, 5 million tons of Colombian coal crossed the Alabama
State Docks in Mobile. It was bound for plants operated by the Alabama
Power Co., a division of the Southern Co., which also operates generating
facilities in Florida and Mississippi. (Southern is now familiar to
California consumers under its new name, Mirant - one of the out-of-state
power generators selling electricity at exorbitant prices on the spot
market.) The company's Alabama plants were formerly fueled by Drummond's
U.S. mines. Another half million tons went to the Alabama Electrical
Alabama used to export coal -- 13 million tons in 1996, mostly from
Drummond mines. Last year's exports totaled only 3 million tons. At the
Loma mine, production rose 4 million tons in 2000, to a total of 11.8
million, after the company built a huge drag line. The company expects to
sell 15 million tons next year, and 25 million tons by 2006.
For Drummond the transfer has resulted in substantial savings on
labor costs. A UMWA miner in Alabama earns $18/hour, or $3060/month, not
counting benefits. At the Loma mine, the four wage classifications range
from 1,500,000 to 2,100,000 pesos a month, about $477-955(US).
Drummond, says UMWA vice-president Jerry Jones, transferred
operations to Colombia "knowing that country's hostile political climate
and egregious human rights violations." Conditions for Colombian miners
are some of the world's most dangerous. An April 27 blast at the Cana
Brava mine in Santander province took the lives of 15 miners. In October of
1997, another explosion buried 16 coal miners alive in El Diviso mine, near
Colombia is the world's fourth-largest coal exporter - it shipped
30 million tons in 2000, worth $794 million, making coal the country's
third-largest source of export earnings. Last year the government's mines
in central Colombia were privatized as part of economic reforms mandated by
the International Monetary Fund, and sold to a consortium of South African,
Swiss and British investors for $384 million.
The Cerrejon Norte mine is the largest open-pit producer in Latin
America. Formerly state-owned, it is now operated as a joint venture
between the government and Exxon Corp. In 2000, the mine produced 18.4
million tons of coal, half Colombia's total output, making it the largest
export mine in the world. Half of that output went to Exxon, which sold
17% of it to two southeast utilities - the Jacksonville (Florida) Electric
Cooperative and Mississippi Power.
After developing Cerrejon Norte in the mid-1908s, Exxon, like
Drummond, began cutting its U.S. coal production. It closed a new mine in
West Virginia, an older one in Illinois, and sold off operations in the
Rockies, Exxon, which used to employ over 1600 US miners, now employs just
321 people at its one remaining mine in Monterey, Illinois. Meanwhile,
it's Colombian operation now accounts for over half the company's coal
Drummond clearly sees an interest in supporting a Bush
administration policy which encourages the increased use of coal in
electrical generation. And it sees U.S. military intervention in Colombia
in its interest as well. "We are in support of the Colombian Plan and the
U.S. efforts in the drug war," Mike Tracy, a Drummond spokesman, told
independent journalist Stephen Jackson, whose report was published in the
Latin American Post.
The Colombian army provides security for Exxon at Cerrejon Norte
from a military base just a few miles away, presumably using hardware
supplied under Plan Colombia. It has a history of involvement in labor
disputes in the mine - in the early 1990s Cerrejon Norte was occupied by
tanks after the government ordered the military to break a miners's strike.
Other U.S. energy corporations, like Occidental Petroleum, depend
on the Colombian army as well, to provide security in their oilfields.
Drummond's desire for a friendly administration policy translated
into a $50,000 donation to the Republican National Committee last July, and
$25,000 to the National Republican Congressional Campaign and $20,000 to
the National Republican Senate Campaign last October. Overall, the coal
industry dumped $3.8 million into the 2000 elections, and gave 80% of it to
Republicans. In turn, the Bush campaign pursued a "cars and coal" strategy
to win mining states, among others, based on an industry-friendly
On November 3, days before the election, candidate Bush told a West
Virginia crowd that "coal is going to help energize America." He didn't
promise, however, that it would be U.S.-mined coal. And after the
election, the administration dropped a campaign pledge that it would back
carbon-dioxide emissions reductions from coal-fired power stations. That
policy change has a big impact on the Alabama plants burning Colombian coal.
"That shouldn't be a surprise," comments Mike Buckner, a researcher
for the United Mine Workers. "Bush comes from the state which is the
country's largest consumer of coal, and Dick Cheney from the state which is
the largest producer."
Bush's energy policy, which passed the House of Representatives on
August 1, was good news to companies like Exxon and Drummond. The plan
calls for building an additional 1300-1900 new electrical generating
stations over the next 20 years, each producing an average 300 megawatts of
power. While the exact number remains uncertain, these will be
overwhelmingly fossil-fuel burning plants. One result will be a vast
increase in the consumption of coal. And if the number of coal-fired
plants in southeast and Atlantic coast states increases drastically under
the new energy policy, the market for Colombian coal will mushroom.
"It's clear that certain sections of the energy policy follow
industry plans closely," concludes Argin Makhijani, president of the
Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland.
Responsibility for the murders of Locarno and Orcasita was laid at
the feet of Colombia's rightist paramilitary army, the United Defense
Groups (AUC), by the police commander for Cesar Province, Hugo Alfonso
Cepeda. He told Colombian television network RCN that "it appears that
it's attributable to paramilitaries who operate in the region." According
to Ken Zinn, the AUC issued a number of death threats against the leaders
of the union at the Loma mine, accusing them of being in league with the
country's main guerilla group, the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
The region has been the scene of intense conflict between the
guerillas and the AUC. The FARC allegedly levies a 10% tax on coal moving
by rail out of the mine, which Drummond has refused to pay, and the
215-mile rail line to Puerto Drummond on the coast was bombed five times in
the last year. In response, Drummond president Gary Drummond visited
Colombian president Andres Pastrana last year to demand increased
``In the conflict a lot of assumptions are made quickly,'' says
Rafael Albuquerque, who represents the International Labor Organization in
Colombia, "One of those assumptions is that many union leaders support the
Locarno and Orcasita made repeated pleas to the company for
protection. In a meeting just a week before the assassinations, the union
demanded that Drummond provide security for its workers, and that the
company abide by a previous agreement allowing them to sleep overnight at
the mine. The company ignored the agreement and refused to allow the men
While coal mine union leaders are clearly targets of the
paramilitaries, they're not the only ones, even in the energy sector, one
of the country's most crucial. Just days after the murders in Valledupar,
two leaders of the Colombian electrical workers union, Andres Granados and
Jaime Sanchez, were gunned down March 22. In mid-March, Eugenio Sanchez
Diaz, a union activist in Colombia's key oil town of Barrancabermeja was
dragged from his home and shot in the street.
And on July 6, paramilitaries tried to assassinate another oil
union leader, Hernando Hernandez, who narrowly escaped after being warned
by friends. His case made it into the Congressional debate. "Mr.
Hernandez, is one of the lucky ones," thundered Congressman Maurice Hinchey
(D-NY). "In the first 45 days of this year, 145 people have been killed in
this small city. These killings take place in spite of the fact that this
is one of the most militarized cities in all of Colombia. The Colombian
Army's Fifth Brigade maintains a military presence, and that includes the
U.S.-funded 61st Advanced Riverine Battalion. These units have made
absolutely no serious efforts to restrain the paramilitaries from
committing these atrocities."
In reality, trade union assassinations extend far beyond the energy sector.
On the last day of March, Jaime Alberto Duque Castro, leader of the El
Cairo Cement Workers Union, was kidnapped by armed gunmen. Amnesty
International accused the AUC of responsibility. Another assassinated
union leader, Ricardo Orozco, vice president of the Colombian Hospital
Workers' Union, had his name on a list of 50 union leaders in Barranquilla,
which was circulated by the paramilitary death squads. He was shot by a
gunman in April, and his death was followed by two days of national labor
The AUC is held responsible by unionists for almost all of the
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. Generally they see groups on the left as linked to
the ideology that led to the formation of guerilla groups."
The AUC, which by numerous press accounts operates in cooperation
with the military, is backed by some elements of the business and economic
elite behind the scenes. "There are powerful economic interests that
support the paramilitaries," Kirk says, "and they do target trade
unionists, and attack union leaders again and again."
Violence against trade unionists is part of a larger context of
violence against community leaders, human rights activists, and advocates
for social change generally. According to the Colombian Commission of
Jurists, 6,000 Colombians were killed as the result of social and political
violence in 2000. The CCJ attributes 80% of the cases to the
paramilitaries, 5% directly to the government, and 15% to leftwing
guerillas. Roberto Molino of the CCJ told a delegation of U.S. unionists,
that "in the case of the paramilitaries, you cannot underestimate the
collaboration of government forces."
Kirk draws a distinction between union assassinations by the AUC
and union members killed by the guerillas. "The guerillas sometimes kill
people who belong to unions because they believe they are cooperating with
the AUC. But the paramilitaries kill them because they are trade
The Colombian government also views union activity as a threat
because it challenges its basic economic policies. The Colombian
administration of President Andres Pastrana is under pressure from the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank to cut the public sector budget,
causing the mass terminations, along with cuts in education, healthcare and
pensions. Finance minister Juan Manuel Santos announced in January
measures that would close many state agencies, laying off 42, 000 workers.
The money would be used to pay the country's debt to foreign banks and
lending institutions, making Colombia more attractive to foreign investors.
In March, the General Confederation of Democratic Workers organized
a 24-hour strike of 700,000 workers, including 300,000 teachers and
education employees, protesting mass layoffs.
The Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE) struck again on May
15 for 48 hours, over a proposal to cut the education budget by $340
million. "If this bill is approved, it will have a very negative effect on
educators and health care workers throughout Colombia," said FECODE
President Gloria Ines Ramirez. Heath care workers also joined the strike.
On June 7, tens of thousands of Colombian workers took to the streets in
marches across the country, opposing the IMF.
Ramirez predicted that the cuts would deprive 500,000 Colombian
children of an education, and three million people have already signed
petitions opposing them. "We will not allow the government to make budget
cuts for two of the most important necessities for our poorest sector
simply to pay interest on the foreign debt," she declared. An education
strike would cancel classes for seven million Colombian children.
Being a teacher union activist in Colombia is as dangerous as being
a coal mine leader. Since 1986, 418 educators have been murdered. In just
one week in early May, Dario de Jesus Silva, a 22-year veteran teacher in
Antioquia Department, and Juan Carlos Castro Zapata, another school worker
in the same province, were assassinated. Both were activists in the CUT
teachers' union ADIDA. On May 14, Julio Alberto Otero, a university
lecturer and union activist, was also killed.
Another IMF mandate, privatization, has been just as bitterly
resisted. The union for workers at the government corporation EMCALI,
which provides garbage, water and electricity to Cali city residents, has
fought the company's selloff. One of the union's activists, Carlos Eliecer
Prado, was killed in May. "Colombian trade unionists have been targeted by
dark forces moving inside the State itself," a union statement warned.
"They seek to silence through assassination, eviction or terror those who
are against privatization and those who defend human rights."
The wave of death and violence is made possible by growing U.S. aid
to the Colombian armed forces. Under Plan Colombia, the U.S. has funneled
over $1 billion into the country, almost entirely in the form of military
assistance. Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid
in the world. "Plan Colombia has bloodied the hands of this Congress,"
charged New York Democrat Joseph Crowley.
Both Colombian and U.S. unions say this money funds a dirty war
against all critics of the Colombian social and economic order, including
unionists. This spring, the United Steel Workers sent a formal delegation
to Colombia in the wake of the murders of Locarno Rodriguez and Orcasita.
Led by attorney Dan Kovalik and Rapid Response Coordinator Glynda Williams,
the delegation met with leaders of the main Colombian labor federation, the
On July 20, the USWA and the International Labor Rights Fund went a
step further - into Federal court in Miami. They charged the Coca-Cola
Beverages (the largest soft-drink bottler in Latin America with a 60-year
history with Coke), and Bebidas y Alimentos, a Colombian bottling plant
owned by Richard Kirby of Key Biscayne, Florida with allowing
paramilitaries to assassinate a union leader, Isidro Segundo Gil, at the
plant's entrance in 1996.
After the USWA delegation made its report, the union's president
Leo Gerard warned the U.S. government that "we are strongly opposed to the
amount of military aid being sent to the Colombian Army when trade
unionists and innocent people are being killed by the very military forces
we are financing."
Many in Congress agree. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) says "cutting
funds from the Colombian military makes sense. This is a military that has
repeatedly been implicated in the brutalization and murder of the very
people that it is supposed to protect."
The USWA criticism follows a position taken by the AFL-CIO last
year, which also called for ending military assistance. The federation
picketed the Colombian embassy in April, condemning the murder of union
leaders. That position puts the U.S. labor federation at odds with the
Bush administration on a key foreign policy issue, and marks a basic change
in relations between U.S. and Colombian labor.
Labor's strong reaction to the Colombian murders stands in contrast
to its relative silence during the Reagan administration-sponsored wars in
Central America in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During that era,
cold-war anti-communism led AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland to try to
suppress widespread criticism of U.S. foreign policy in union ranks, and to
stop efforts from below to organize grassroots support for Salvadoran trade
unionists at a time when they were hit with the same wave of death now
evident in Colombia.
During the cold war, Kirkland and other labor conservatives accused
most Colombian unions of being too leftwing. In turn the Colombians, like
many third world labor federations, accused the AFL-CIO of supporting only
anti-communist unions which defended U.S. foreign policy.
Today, U.S. unions want relations with all sectors of Colombian
labor, and use a single standard in calling for the defense of unions under
attack. "Trade union rights are human rights and our union will fight to
protect them everywhere," Gerard says. "We demand that the Colombian
government protect all trade unionists in their country and do everything
in its power to bring these assassins to justice."
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