BY SEAN HEALY
Giant US soft drink company Coca-Cola is being sued in a US federal court for allegedly collaborating with death squads to kill, threaten and intimidate workers at Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia.
The suit was filed on July 20 by plaintiffs including Sinaltrainal, a Colombian union representing 2,300 food workers including 500 bottling plant employees, and the estate of Isidro Segundo Gil, a union leader shot to death in 1996 at the entrance to a bottling plant in the northern town of Carepa.
The plaintiffs have the backing of the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund and are seeking $500 million in damages. The claim names Coca-Cola as a defendant because the US-based company "exercises considerable control" over the bottling companies and benefited from their repression of unionists, according to lawyers for the union.
The company denies the allegations.
"We vigorously deny wrongdoing regarding human rights in Colombia or anywhere else", said Rafael Fernandez Quiros, the manager for international public affairs for Coca-Cola. "Neither Coca-Cola or its Colombian subsidiary owns or operates any bottling plants in Colombia."
Also named as defendants are Panamerican Beverages, a Miami company which is the largest soft drink bottler in Latin America, and Bebidas y Alimentos, a bottling plant in Colombia.
The plaintiffs' attorney Daniel Kovalik dismissed Coca-Cola's attempts to distance itself from its affiliates, pointing out that under the terms of its contracts, the company constantly supervises and inspects the plants it works with.
"It's inconceivable that they didn't know about it," Kovalik said. "They even control the type of uniforms the workers wear."
Of every five trade unionists murdered in the world, three are Colombian, the suit claims. More than 50 trade union leaders have been killed so far this year and more than 1500 in the past 10 years.
Sinaltrainal claims that five of its members working in Coca-Cola bottling plants have been killed since 1994.
Oscar Dario Soto Polo, an employee and union official at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Monertia, was gunned down on June 21, while walking in the street with his youngest daughter. At the time, he had been involved in negotiations over proposals to provide security to trade unionists under threat from death squads.
The lawsuit also gives details of alleged paramilitary operations at the Bebidas y Alimentos bottling plant in the town of Carepa, which operates under contract for Coca-Cola.
Two Sinaltrainal members, Jose David and Luis Granado, were murdered in 1994. The union lawsuit alleges that the killings were carried out by paramilitary forces, which then presented the rest of the workforce with an ultimatum either to resign from the union or flee Carepa.
The management of Bebidas y Alimentos permitted these paramilitary forces to appear within the plant to deliver this message to union members and leaders, the lawsuit alleges.
When the union elected a new board, management hired paramilitaries to work in the sales and production departments. They carried out a campaign of intimidation that included death threats against specific board members and culminated in the murder inside the plant of Isidro Segundo Gil in December 1996.
At Panamco's Coca-Cola plant in Bucaramanga, the plaintiffs allege that five members of the local union executive board were falsely accused in 1996 of planting a bomb on the premises during a labour dispute, were badly beaten by local police, and incarcerated in terrible conditions for six months before the regional prosecutor found that the charges were groundless and ordered them released.
At Panamco's Cucata and Barrancabermeja plants, the local union officials have been forced into hiding after receiving death threats from paramilitaries beginning in 1999, in connection with their union work.
In Barrancabermeja, plant management has openly collaborated with and supported the paramilitaries, according to the complaint.
In each case, the union repeatedly asked Coca-Cola Colombia and the bottling company's management for protection. "Coke did nothing", said Kovalik.
In all these cases, according to Terry Collingsworth, the International Labor Rights Fund's chief attorney, the bottlers effectively acted as Coca-Cola's agent, due to the degree of control the soft drink company exercised over their operations under the standard bottling contract.
"We are confident that if any of these plants make a mistake in applying Coca-Cola's formula or in delivering Coke, they would be there to correct it", said Kovalik. "But in cases where they kill union leaders, they do nothing."
The case is being brought just as the US Congress considers a request by President George W Bush to add some $400 million in economic and military aid to $1.3 billion already approved for Plan Colombia, an effort to help government forces crush an armed insurgency in large parts of the country.