The Colombian Triangle




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lawsuit filed in June in a U.S. District
court against Coca-Cola on behalf of a murdered Colombian labor
organizer has intensified a long-running human rights campaign against
the beverage giant. The International Labor Rights Fund and the
United Steelworkers of America filed a similar lawsuit several years
ago. This time, they are holding the company directly responsible.
 


This suit claims that in 2002 paramilitary forces in Barranquilla,
Colombia, conspiring with both the government and the managers at
the town’s Coca-Cola bottling plant, killed union activist
Jesus Munera. The suit was filed in Florida under the Alien Torts
Act. The Coca-Cola company is named as a defendant. 


Eight labor leaders have been assassinated at Coca-Cola bottling
plants in Colombia since 1989 and many others have been physically
attacked, threatened, or harassed. These crimes have caused the
movement to boycott the company to grow in U.S. and European anti-sweatshop
and labor circles. More than a dozen college campuses have banned
Coca-Cola products as a result and several union locals have signed
onto the boycott. 


Daniel Kovalik, assistant general council for the steelworkers’
union, claims that the ILRF and his organization warned Coca-Cola
about paramilitary activity at bottling plants. Ray Rogers of the
Campaign to Stop Killer Coke also says that at least one Coca-Cola
representative admitted keeping word of such warnings from the Colombian
food workers’ union. 








Coca-Cola
has long claimed that it has been aware of the political violence
in Colombia and has enacted protective measures for their workers.
But Kovalik still holds the Atlanta-based company culpable. According
to him, the bottling plant is a joint venture between Coca-Cola
FEMSA (the South American bottler) and the Coca-Cola Company—
Coca-Cola has 46 percent ownership of Coca-Cola FEMSA. Therefore,
the attorneys reason, if managers at the plant conspired with Munera’s
killers then the company must answer for that. “They cannot
wiggle out of this,” Kovalik said. 


Rogers, who spends much of his time coordinating the nationwide
boycott of Coca-Cola, sees the development as another blow against
the company among others as of late. The City University of New
York Law School recently kicked Coca-Cola off its campus, like many
other campuses in the U.S. have done. “I know that there’s
a lot more,” he said referring to issues that the boycott movement
could exploit. “I know we could cause great harm.” 


This case also comes at a time when the Colombian Administrative
Department of Security (DAS)  has been exposed for supplying
vital information and assistance to the right-wing paramilitary
group, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which is considered
a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Officials in a
government department (DAS) devoted to protecting people like factory
workers instead aided and abetted in this violence. This collusion
has been a major scandal in the country and the focus of many human
rights organizations. 


Regardless of these issues, the company believes this current lawsuit
is an attempt to open a closed case. “The death of Mr. Munera
is a tragedy that is unrelated to his employment,” said Kerry
Kerr, a spokesperson for the company. “His murderer was convicted
and is currently in prison serving a 17year sentence.” There
is also the sentiment that things are improving in Colombia. “The
new head [of DAS] is reported to be honest and has fired 70 employees,”
said Heather Hanson, director of the U.S. Office on Colombia, a
nonprofit organization in Washington. 


Munera, who was killed in 2002, was the last union leader at a Coca-Cola
plant to be murdered, according to the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke.
But paramilitary groups continue to harass Coca-Cola workers. In
September 2005 Luciano Enrique Romero Molina, also a member of the
Colombian food workers union and a former Nestle worker, was murdered
in Valledupar. 


Rogers believes that the fate of Coca-Cola workers is intertwined
with the nation’s troubled political situation. Colombia is
one of the most dangerous nations for labor activists and the nation
has been the recipient of billions of U.S. aid dollars. “There
is a symbiotic relationship between the paramilitaries, the government,
and multinationals like Coca-Cola,” Rogers said. 


Kovalik agreed that while the lawsuit names Coca-Cola as a defendant
there is also a greater issue at hand. The overall situation, he
said, “calls into grave question the propriety of the U.S.’s
continued commitment to aid for the Colombian military forces.” 





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Paul is a freelance writer. His articles have been published in



Z, the American Prospect, In These Times

, and openDemocracy.