The Return of the "Banana Wars"

| Fri Jul. 27, 2007 4:01 PM EDT

Yesterday, a federal jury in Alabama cleared Drummond, a Birmingham-based coal company, of all charges in a suit that alleged company executives had orchestrated the execution of three Colombian labor activists representing workers at Drummond's La Loma mine in that country's northern Cesar department. The lawsuit, brought by victims' families, invoked the rarely-used Alien Tort Claims Act (circa 1789; originally drafted to fight piracy), which, under certain conditions, allows foreign nationals to sue for damages in U.S. courts. The plaintiff's attorneys have said they will appeal.

The trial focused on the 2001 murders of three union leaders by Colombian paramilitaries. In March of that year, Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Victor Hugo Orcasita Amaya—president and vice president of the Sintraminergetica union—were pulled from a bus shortly after leaving the mine. Locarno was immediately shot in the head, while Orcasita was beaten and kidnapped. His tortured body was found the next day. Later, in October, Locarno's replacement, Gustavo Soler, was also executed on his way home from work.

The suit alleged that executives with Drummond Ltd., the Colombian division of the privately-owned Drummond Co. Inc., paid Colombian paramilitaries to murder the union leaders, knowing full well that such executions are rarely investigated. Witnesses for the prosecution detailed how Drummond provided housing, food, and transportation for the paramilitaries, ostensibly for defense of the mine. In reality, claimed prosecutors, the relationship was much more sinister and involved Drummond's active engagement of the paramilitaries as contract killers. Defense attorneys—as well as a parade of senior executives from Drummond, who testified at the trial—responded that the charges were without foundation and claimed that Drummond maintains a strict policy against collaboration with paramilitaries.

While the victims' families file thier appeal, the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on human rights is planning to hold a hearing on Drummond's operations in Colombia. In addition, Colombian government investigators are continuing their inquiry into Drummond and the alleged shady dealings of several other U.S. multinationals, including Chiquita, Coca-Cola, Dole, and Del Monte.

Earlier this year, banana company Chiquita agreed to a $25 million fine after admitting that, since 1997, it had paid $1.7 million in protection money to the AUC, an umbrella organization for various Colombian paramilitaries. The payments continued even after the U.S. government designated the AUC as a terrorist organization.

More to follow in the days and weeks to come on the subject of Drummond, et. al, and their alleged dealings with Colombian paramilitaries...