Colombia: mine contractor convicted in killings

On Jan. 25 Colombian judge William Andrés Castiblanco sentenced Jaime Blanco, a former contractor for the Alabama-based Drummond Co. Inc. coal company, to 37 years and 11 months in prison for masterminding the March 2001 murders of two union leaders in the northern department of Cesar. The court found that Blanco, who supplied food services for Drummond’s La Loma mine, had arranged with right-wing paramilitaries, including one known as “Tolemaida,” for the killing of Valmore Locarno and Víctor Hugo Orcasita, leaders of the mine’s union. Blanco’s assistant, Jairo Charris, was convicted in 2009 in the same murder plot and was sentenced to 30 years.

Judge Castiblanco also sent trial records to Colombian prosecutors so that they could investigate other people possibly connected to the crimes: Drummond’s president, Garry Drummond; two company directors, Augusto Valencia and Jean Adkins; Alfredo Araújo Castro, Drummond’s public relations director for Cesar; and former Colombian legislator Jorge Castro Pacheco, who was convicted in 2010 of maintaining ties to paramilitary organizations. In addition, the judge supported a request by the victims’ relatives to ask the Supreme Court to investigate former assistant prosecutor Edgardo Maya for allegedly failing to act to protect unionists in Cesar; Maya is Jaime Blanco’s half-brother.

Drummond management has long been suspected of involvement of the murders of Locarno and Orcasita and of another La Loma unionist, Gustavo Soler, who was killed later in 2001. The US-based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) and the United Steelworkers (USW) union filed a civil suit against Drummond in March 2002 under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute in federal court in Birmingham, Alabama, where the company is based. The Birmingham jury found the company not liable in 2007, but ILRF executive director Terry Collingsworth announced plans to appeal. In an April 2011 interview Blanco told the Associated Press wire service that Drummond senior managers ordered the murders of Locarno and Orcasita and that if he was convicted, they would be able to “wash their hands” of the case. (El Tiempo, Bogotá, Feb. 5; Miami Herald, Feb. 6, from AP)

In other news the Colombian Environment Ministry has indefinitely suspended Drummond’s permission to load coal on ships at its port near Santa Marta in the northern department of Magdalena; the suspension came after the company dumped at least 500 metric tons of coal into the Caribbean in January to keep a barge from sinking in bad weather. The ministry indicated that Drummond, the second largest exporter of Colombian coal, needs to develop a better contingency plan before it is allowed to resume operations. Meanwhile, production stopped at the largest exporter of Colombian coal—Cerrejón, a joint venture between BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Xstrata—on Feb. 7 when workers went on their first strike in two decades. The Cerrejón Workers Union (Sintracarbón) called the walkout over wage and benefit issues. (MH, Feb. 6, from AP; Reuters, Feb. 8)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 10.