Colombia: US jury lets Drummond off

After deliberating for less than four hours, on July 26 a 10-member jury in US District Court in Birmingham, Alabama, found the locally based Drummond Co. Inc. coal company not liable in the 2001 murders of three unionists at its La Loma mine in northern Colombia. The unionists’ families and their union, Sintramienergetica, had charged that Drummond supplied fuel, vehicles and shelter to the rightwing paramilitary group that murdered Valmore Locarno and Victor Orcasita in March 2001 and Gustavo Soler seven months later. The International Labor Rights Fund and the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers (USW) filed the federal civil suit in March 2002 under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute. Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, said the plaintiffs “will be swiftly appealing.”

The jury’s decision after 11 days of testimony and legal arguments was a setback for labor and human rights groups, which have had several successes using federal laws to hold US corporations responsible for abuses in their operations abroad. US energy giant Unocal settled a similar case related to torture, murder and rape in Burma for undisclosed terms in 2004, and in March of this year Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International agreed to pay the US government a $25 million fine for funding the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group. Collingsworth said the verdict just concerned the Drummond case and would not affect other cases that might be brought under the Alien Tort Statute. (Reuters, July 26; Birmingham News, July 27)

During the trial, witnesses said Augusto Jimenez, who ran Drummond’s Colombia operations, regularly warned employees to keep quiet. “A fish that swims with its mouth open soon dies,” Jimenez told a union official, the official testified. On July 20 former mining supervisor Victor Marenco said he once saw paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo (“Jorge 40”), with his entourage of armed guards, leaving the office of Jaime Blanco, whose company catered meals at Drummond’s canteens. (Birmingham News, July 21, 22) Before the trial, US district judge Karon Bowdre had tried to seal documents damaging to Drummond, including sworn testimony by former Colombian security official Rafael Garcia that he was at a meeting where Jimenez handed “a suitcase full of money” to a representative of Jorge 40 to have the three union leaders murdered.

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 5

See our last posts on Colombia, and the paramilitary scandal. See also our special report on corporate power and the Colombian paramilitaries.