WASHINGTON - Labor rights activists are suing Coca-
Cola, the giant US-based multinational beverage company, for the
killings and intimidation of union leaders at several of its
bottling plants in Colombia.
The lawsuit, to be filed Friday in a Miami federal court, charges
that Coke, by failing to prevent its bottlers in Colombia from
bringing in right-wing paramilitary death squads to break up
unions at its plants, bears responsibility for the abuses,
including murder and torture, under both US and state law.
A Coca-Cola spokesman, Rafael Fernandez, said the Atlanta-based
company was not at fault. ''We deny any wrongdoing regarding human
rights in Colombia or anywhere else,'' he said, adding that the
company had no ''specific information'' regarding abuses at its
bottling plants there.
Also named as defendants in the lawsuit, which is being brought by
the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) and the Washington-
based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), are the bottlers
themselves, Miami-based Panamco and Bebidas y Alimentos, a company
owned by Richard Kirby and his son, Richard Kirby Keilland, both
US citizens living in Key Biscayne, Florida.
No one answered the phone listed for the Kirbys, while a Panamco
employee said that its management was attending a board meeting
and was unavailable for comment.
Plaintiffs include SINALTRAINAL, a Colombian trade union that
represents workers at a number of beverage and food companies in
Colombia; the survivors of Isidro Segundo Gil, who was murdered by
paramilitary forces inside the Carepa bottling plant in 1995' and
several other union members who allegedly have been subjected to
the paramilitaries' campaign of violence and intimidation.
The case is being brought in part to highlight the appalling
plight of Colombian labor unionists, several thousand of whom
have been murdered over the past 15 years - a record that has
drawn the attention of the International Labor Organization
(ILO), among others.
''There has been a very concerted campaign against trade unionists
for many years and it seems to have even stepped up in recent
months,'' according to Robin Kirk, a Colombia expert at Human
''Of every five trade unionists murdered in the world, three are
Colombian,'' said Dan Kovalik, a USWA lawyer. He said more than 50
trade union leaders have been killed so far this year, including
Oscar Dario Soto Polo, an employee and union official at a Coca-
Cola bottling plant in Monertia who was gunned down Jun 21.
The case also is being brought as the US House of Representatives
this week considers a request by President George W. Bush to add
some 400 million dollars in economic and military aid to 1.3
billion dollars already approved for 'Plan Colombia,' an effort to
help government forces gain control of coca-growing regions.
The request has run into unexpectedly strong resistance,
especially among Democrats, who are concerned that the money would
only fuel abuses, particularly by right-wing paramilitary forces
that have been supported by military commanders in the past.
The paramilitaries, which human rights groups claim are
responsible for most of the violence in Colombia, have often acted
as hired guns for big landowners and private companies, precisely
to discourage workers from organizing.
The case is based primarily on the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 200-
year-old law that permits foreigners to sue anyone for damages
arising from grave human rights abuses committed abroad. The only
constraint is that defendants must be served on US territory.
The Act has been used with striking success in gaining big
judgments against individuals, including about a dozen foreign
heads of state and senior military officers, in lawsuits brought
over the past 15 years. Its use against corporations is relatively
The ILRF helped bring a suit against UNOCAL, the California-based
energy company, for its alleged complicity with Burma's military
government in drafting forced labor to build a pipeline, but that
case remains in the courts. Last month, it filed another case
against Exxon-Mobil for Mobil's alleged backing for military
abuses in Aceh, Indonesia.
At the Carepa bottling plant, according to the 60-page complaint,
paramilitary forces murdered two activists in April 1994 and then
were invited by management at Bebidos y Alimentos to come onto the
premises to threaten other members of the local SINALTRAINAL
leadership if they did not resign from the union or flee the town
altogether. In 1995, every member of the union's executive board
When the union elected a new board, management hired members of
the 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
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 labor
dispute, were badly beaten by local police, and were incarcerated
in terrible conditions for six months before the regional
prosecutor found that the charges were groundless and ordered them
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
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, ILRF'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.''
Collingsworth pointed out that, in a similar case in Guatemala 20
years ago, Coke arranged for the bottling plant owner, John
Trotter, to sell his franchise. Trotter was accused of using death
squads to kill several union officials between 1978 and 1979.
After the sale, the repression at the plant ceased.
But in the case of the Carepa plant, Coke turned down an offer by
the Kirbys to sell the plant in 1997, despite reports that the
elder Kirby had specifically threatened to kill union leaders
before Gil's death.
''There is no question that Coke knew about and benefited from the
systematic repression of trade union rights at its bottling plants
in Colombia, and this case will make the company accountable,''
Coke's Fernandez denied, however, that the company received ''any
notice from Colombian police or anybody of any wrongdoing'' in any
of the plants. ''It is not true that the agreement (between the
bottlers and the company) gives us control,'' he added, noting
that Coke expects all its employees and associates to abide by a
business code of conduct dating back to 1980.
Copyright 2001 IPS