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Union lawsuit against Coke marks unusual effort to aid labor in Colombia

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On Dec. 5, 1996, paramilitary gunmen entered a Coca-Cola bottling plant in northwestern Colombia and asked for 36-year-old Isidro Gil, a labor union leader who was trying to win a contract for the workers there.

They found him. Then they shot him seven times.

Javier Correa, left, president of Colombia's Sinaltrainal labor union, and Daniel Kovalik, an attorney for the United Steelworkers of America, during their meeting earlier this month. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Seven years later, a Pittsburgh labor lawyer is representing Gil's estate and suing two of the Coca-Cola Co.'s Colombian bottlers in an American court seeking redress.

It's a novel attempt to bring the American justice system to bear on human rights violators in Colombia, where more than 1,800 union leaders have been murdered over the past dozen years.

It's also an attention-getting effort to punish Coke, which was dismissed as a defendant March 31, and put multinational corporations on notice that they could be dragged into U.S. courts if they appear to condone violence to break unions in the developing world.

"We view the lawsuit as quite crucial to the struggle to bring peace to Colombia," said Daniel Kovalik, an attorney for the United Steelworkers of America, which has lent his services to the plaintiffs' legal team.

Kovalik and his clients, all affiliated with Colombia's Sinaltrainal labor union, got a taste of both victory and defeat in a March 31 ruling in the case, which is being heard in Miami.

Federal Judge Jose E. Martinez allowed the case to go forward against two Coca-Cola bottlers: Bebidas y Alimentos and Panamerican Beverages, but not against Coke itself, saying the company does not set labor policies at independently owned bottling plants. Kovalik's team has asked Martinez to reconsider. So have the bottlers, who want the case thrown out altogether.

The lawsuit alleges that Bebidas y Alimentos conspired with a right-wing paramilitary army to murder Gil and break the Sinaltrainal union at the company's bottling plant in Carepa, Colombia. It says the plant operates "under the control and authority" of Coca-Cola.

A Coca-Cola spokeswoman declined comment. But the company calls the allegations "false" and "baseless" on its Web site, which goes on to say, "Because Colombia is in such turmoil, the Coca-Cola Co. and its local bottling partners have prioritized the safety and security of all employees and labor union officials."

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The lawsuit alleges that Ariosto Mosquera, the Bebidas plant manager at the time, invited paramilitary soldiers into the bottling facility to "exterminate the trade union."

James McDonald, attorney for Bebidas, said Mosquera resigned from the plant two days before the Dec. 5, 1996, murder. "You read the [lawsuit]; it's fiction," McDonald said. "[Mosquera's resignation] completely breaks the link between the killing and Bebidas."

Hours after Gil's murder, paramilitary troops set fire to the Sinaltrainal office in Carepa. Two days later, a paramilitary squad entered the plant and forced the workers, under threat of death, to terminate their union memberships on the spot.

The episode was more emblematic than exceptional in a country where privately organized paramilitary units kill union leaders with alarming frequency.

"To be a trade unionist in Colombia is to have one foot in this world and one in the next," Kovalik said.

The most recent State Department's Human Rights Report for Colombia, released March 31, noted: "Paramilitaries continued to commit numerous unlawful and political killings, particularly of labor leaders, often kidnapping and torturing suspected guerrilla sympathizers prior to executing them."

'Wake-up call' for Coke

Formed in the 1980s by Colombian ranchers to supplement the army, right-wing paramilitaries view the labor movement as part of the leftist rebellion that has waged a 40-year civil war in Colombia.

The country's judicial system, which itself has been frequently attacked, has seldom interfered. Among the 1,875 murders of union leaders that have bloodied the Colombian landscape since 1991, convictions have been obtained in only five cases.

The Gil murder, like almost all the others, has gone unpunished.

According to the State Department, "Impunity [remains] at the core of the country's human rights problems. The civilian judiciary [is] inefficient, severely overburdened by a large case backlog, and undermined by corruption and intimidation."

Javier Correa, president of the Sinaltrainal union, met with Kovalik in Pittsburgh earlier this month. He said a monetary award in a U.S. court might discourage attacks on unionists in his country. "I hope that as a result of this case, the truth about Colombia becomes known," he said.

The Gil estate and the unionists are suing under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreigners to sue in U.S. court for violations of international law.

Such a violation may exist in this case, Judge Martinez ruled, because paramilitaries often coordinate their activities with the Colombian government.

To sue under the Alien Tort Claims Act, it is also essential that defendants have ties to the United States, Kovalik said. Although the claims against Coca-Cola have been dismissed, ties to the United States remain, since the Bebidas bottler is owned by a Florida family.

With a foothold in federal court obtained through the alien act, the plaintiffs are also suing under the Torture Victim Protection Act.

"It's an important precedent to show that U.S. companies can be sued for abuses they commit in other countries," Kovalik said.

Robin Kirk, Colombia expert for the New York City-based Human Rights Watch, has been monitoring the case.

"I think this has been a wake-up call for Coca-Cola," Kirk said. "It certainly can't look the other way. It has to look very closely at its bottlers.

"The fact that corporations are concerned about their reputations means that they have to take these allegations more seriously."

Coca-Cola, in its statement, said it is now providing personal bodyguards and armored vehicles to union officials at some of its bottling plants in Colombia.

Kirk fears, though, that the case won't command much public attention now that Coca-Cola is no longer a defendant. Major regional newspapers, such as The Miami Herald and The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, have been covering the case.

Kovalik hopes Martinez will re-install Coke as a defendant and is anticipating his next trip to Colombia, where he has already traveled three times to gather evidence.

"There is a lot of hard work ahead," he said. "We have to put proof together to support our allegations."

Key to the case will be proving the existence of a conspiracy between Bebidas and the paramilitary troops who killed Gil.

McDonald, the attorney for Bebidas, maintains that the paramilitaries acted independently. "They're a bunch of terrorists," he said.

Complicating matters for Kovalik is the ferocity of the fighting in Colombia's civil war. He doesn't dare travel to Carepa, where battles are frequent.

Correa, who has seen membership in Sinaltrainal drop from 5,600 at the time of Gil's death to 2,400 today, is nevertheless heartened that the Steelworkers are helping his beleaguered union.

"We see we're not alone in our fight," Correa said. "That is why, despite all the difficulties we have encountered, we're going to continue the struggle."

Jeffrey Cohan can be reached at jcohan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3573.

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