Is this U.S. coal giant funding violent union intimidation in Colombia?

Alabama-based Drummond Co. sued for alleged ties to group behind deaths, threats

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Union members meet in Valledupar, Colombia, during last year's strike against Drummond Co.

Courtesy of Sintramienergetica

BOGOTA, Colombia — Cesar Florez is often hesitant to answer his phone because there might be another death threat at the end of the line. Sometimes the threat comes in a phone call, other times in a text message or an email. In April, flyers were posted in the restroom stalls at Florez’s workplace, declaring him and his colleagues “permanent military targets.”

Until last month, Florez served as a local president of Sintramienergetica, a labor union in Colombia that represents the employees of Drummond Company, a U.S.-based coal-mining firm, in a country known for some of the world’s most severe violence against union leaders. Florez has been a Drummond employee for 17 years and active in the union for the last 14. Most recently, he worked as a marine operations technician in Drummond’s port near Santa Marta, where its coal is shipped out on barges.

But his position as a union leader has also meant he’s attracted a significant number of threats, including attempts on his life, which happen to spike around labor disputes, he said. In July 2013 the union went on strike, calling for a pay raise and to move from an hourly wage to a salary, among other demands. For 53 days the strike wore on amid tense negotiations, while the threats that Florez and his colleagues received only accelerated.

“They said if we didn’t lift the strike we’d be a target,” Florez said, describing some of the phone calls he received. “They said they already knew where my family was.”

Many of the written threats that Florez received bear the watermark of Los Rastrojos Comandos Urbanos, an active paramilitary group with ties to drug trafficking.

The Center for Public Integrity made numerous attempts to reach Drummond for comment on allegations that it has used the group to try to intimidate Sintramienergetica leaders like Florez; a spokesman said he could not respond to any questions on the matter. In a recent statement, the company’s lawyers asserted, “Drummond has never paid or otherwise assisted any illegal group in Colombia, whether paramilitary or guerilla [sic].”

Nonetheless, Drummond has been named in several lawsuits alleging financial ties to paramilitary groups since the mid-1990s.

Drummond — a closely held company based in Birmingham, Alabama, with revenues that reached $3 billion last year—has helped Colombia become the world’s fourth-largest coal exporter. Heman Drummond started the business in 1935 on the backs of mules that were used to haul loads of coal from its mines in Alabama. Under the leadership of his son, Garry, the company expanded, securing a contract to extract coal in La Loma, in the Cesar Department of Northeast Colombia in the late 1980s.

While its Colombian operations quickly became a significant revenue stream for the company, security issues and labor disputes have always been substantial obstacles for Drummond’s business. And, according to its workers, intimidation has become routine in a country where trade union leaders are often viewed as subversives.

Killings, threats and lawsuits

On March 12, 2001, a bus carrying Drummond workers — including Valmare Locarno, 42, the local affiliate president of Sintramienergetica and Victor Hugo Orcasita, 36, its vice president — left the mine in La Loma at approximately 6:15 p.m. Locarno was on a three-month leave from the company, but according to one account of the event, he had been called to the mine that day for a meeting with management to discuss some of the complaints of the workers. Both Locarno and Orcasita were negotiating new contracts for the union at the time.

Two trucks — one green and one wine-colored — pulled up alongside the bus and intercepted it a short time later as it drove under a passway. Alcides Manuel Mattos, a member of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group who used the alias “Samario” was the first on the bus, according to his account of the incident, and several others filed in behind him. As he moved to the back of the vehicle, another AUC fighter identified Lacorno and pulled him off the bus, shooting him to death in front of his colleagues. Orcasita was driven away in one of the trucks, and taken to “Tolemaida,” the commander of the Juan Andres Alvarez Front of the AUC. He was killed later that night. And Gustavo Soler, who succeeded Locarno as president, was murdered just seven months later, with two gunshot wounds to his head also while on his way home from work.

Nearly 15 years later, these murders remain on the mind of Cesar Florez. The threats against Sintramienergetica’s leaders have only sharpened, he said in an interview in Bogota.

Four lawsuits — three of which are pending — have been filed against Drummond in U.S. courts by human rights lawyer Terry Collingsworth, who also has taken on companies like Dole Foods Inc. and Chiquita Brands International. One alleges that Drummond is responsible for the deaths of the three Colombian union leaders and financially supported the AUC. The case was dismissed, but an appeal was heard last August after ex-paramilitaries testified under Colombia’s Peace and Justice Program. The 2005 law, which was amended the next year, allowed for reduced sentences in exchange for demobilization and a full confession to one’s crimes. Several paramilitaries who had operated in the area made statements under oath against Drummond.

The decision of the appeals panel in Alabama’s 11th Circuit is pending; Collingsworth said he expects a ruling soon and is optimistic about the outcome.

A win here would absolutely establish that companies will be held accountable and this will have a tremendous effect on future conduct of this sort,” he said. “Up until now, companies assumed that they could literally get away with murder in countries like Colombia.”

A Center review of hundreds of pages of court documents and testimony paints a grim picture of the Cesar Department during one of Colombia’s most brutal periods.

When Drummond began operations in Colombia, the country was still embroiled in a civil war led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Kidnappings and extortion schemes were common, and landowners were heavily affected, as guerrilla activity blocked them from their crops and cattle. Ranchers in the Cesar Department began to form self-protection groups in the early 1990s, but when these groups failed to significantly combat guerrilla troops, an initial 60 paramilitaries were recruited to Cesar from the nascent group that later became the AUC. Between 1996 and 2006, the organization grew into a strong militant force of its own that terrorized the region in its mission to defeat the FARC.

By the mid-1990s, as the AUC began to solidify its ranks, security had already become a major concern for Drummond, as it had for the ranchers. The coal from Drummond’s mine is transported along a 120-mile railroad line from La Loma to the port near Santa Marta — a tranquil tourist town tucked into the northern Caribbean coast of the country. But the railroad line soon became a target because of the valuable load it was carrying. Even today, abandoned houses along the route are riddled with bullet holes.

The 41st front of the FARC attacked the trains with dynamite on multiple occasions. According to a former paramilitary who patrolled the area, palm oil producers would sometimes try to buy the coal illegally from trucks carrying coal along the route as well. Concerns also grew within Drummond’s management over its workers being kidnapped.

Garry Drummond, who is described as both “charismatic” and “brilliant” by men who have worked for him, became desperate to protect his coal, according to testimony. Any delay in shipments could damage the business if he didn’t deliver on valuable contracts that he had secured with European firms. 

In May 1995, the company recruited James Lee Adkins for a job as a security advisor. Adkins had worked with the CIA for 20 years but was placed on leave and said he was later forced to retire from the agency for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, in which the U.S. government came under fire for diverting funds from covert weapons sales to Iran, to rebel militant groups in Nicaragua known as Contras. Drummond managers had met Adkins in Miami during a conference on terrorism in 1988, where the actions of the former CIA agent were lauded in a standing ovation.

Shortly after accepting the position with Drummond, Adkins was making regular flights between Colombia and Alabama on a company plane. In Birmingham, he gave presentations to employees on how to keep from being kidnapped and what do to if it happened. In Colombia, Adkins recommended security protocols to protect Drummond’s railroad line. But according to the testimony of several ex-paramilitaries, Adkins also played a key role in a plan to financially support the AUC as a source of protection for the company.

In a deposition, Adkins said he had “no knowledge of such payments” between Drummond and paramilitary groups. His lawyer declined to comment further on the matter. But memos produced as part of the trial reveal that Adkins knew the FARC had accused Drummond of paying paramilitary groups and that he was aware of paramilitaries guarding the railroad line near banana and palm oil properties.

Jaime Blanco, who grew up in a wealthy family in Valledupar, a city in the Cesar Department, won a bid to become the food contractor for Drummond’s dining facility around the time Adkins joined the company in late 1995. The cafeteria later became known as “the casino,” and according to testimony, miners complained about the number of paramilitaries that spent time there. Blanco had close ties to the AUC, including Rodrigo Tovar, a rancher and childhood friend of Blanco who went by the name of “Jorge 40.” By 1997, Jorge 40 rose to become the commander of the AUC’s entire Northern Bloc when several fronts of the groups unified.

According to Blanco’s testimony, Drummond wanted the AUC’s help to secure the railroad line. Blanco went on to allege that he received $10,000 cash payments directly from Adkins when he returned from his trips to Birmingham. The food contractor, he testified, was also told to overcharge for certain items through his company, so that overages could be directed to the AUC. In his deposition, Adkins denied making payments through Blanco and said that the food contract with Drummond was already in place before he had met Blanco.

Contracts awarded to Blanco’s company to provide meals for the workers show a 40 percent increase in the cost of meals over an eight-month period in 1996, while the Consumer Price Index only rose a few percentage points. In his account of events, Blanco says this is one way that money was funneled from Drummond to the AUC.

Still, there are numerous discrepancies between the testimonies of the former paramilitaries. Collingsworth attributes this to the time that has lagged since the original events, while defense lawyers say it is evidence of falsehood.

Lawyers on behalf of Drummond have vehemently denied any connection to paramilitary groups that have operated in the area since the first lawsuit was filed in 2002. And in Adkins’ testimony, he reiterates this and says there was a company policy against funding such groups, despite the security situation at the time.

Blanco is serving a 38-year sentence in connection with the deaths of the union workers after being convicted in January of last year by a Colombian court. He also alleges in his testimony that Drummond directed the AUC to kill the union workers because they were threatening to strike and that this could delay coal shipments. In response to evidence that surfaced in Blanco’s trial, the judge called for an investigation into CEO Garry Drummond and three other managers.

Worker safety concerns

Sintramienergetica workers continue to have serious concerns over pay and worker safety. Fears of death threats and job insecurity for union affiliation remain rampant. While Drummond describes its relationship with the union as a positive one, union members have repeatedly criticized the company’s treatment of its workers.

On March 22, 2009, Dagoberto Clavijo lost control of the tanker truck he was driving, and died after his vehicle slipped off an embankment outside of the mine in La Loma. He was just one month into his job. Sintramienergetica workers in the Santa Marta port and La Loma mine went on strike the next day in protest, calling for safer working conditions and complaining that Clavijo hadn’t received proper training. The strike lasted four days. But Drummond responded by declaring the strike illegal, and Colombia’s Supreme Court later agreed. The company fired 35 workers, nearly all who were a part of the union’s leadership, Florez among them. 

With the help of lawyers, Florez had his contract reinstated but was fired once more in 2011. In early June, he lost his appeal and his contract with the company was terminated. He attributes Drummond’s actions to his union activity and the fact that he suffers from heart arrhythmia.

“The sick are always fired,” said Florez. “Drummond has this arrogance. They say, ‘So sue!’ Since they know that the workers are not going to win.”

Anibal Perez, another former member of Sintramienergetica, suffered a work-related accident in May 2009 and today leans on a cane. The ligaments in his right ankle never healed properly as he tried to continue working under the instructions of his supervisor and against those of his doctor. The next month he lost his job anyway. Perez went on to organize the Association of Sick Workers of Drummond Ltd Port of Santa Marta in March of 2010. In testimony, he cited between 8,000 and 10,000 work-related accidents, 25 deaths and 1,500 cases of lung cancer among the employees of Drummond since it began operations in the early 1990s.

Perez said he received death threats after he began advocating for improved conditions and condemned Drummond for its labor and human-rights violations.

After Perez denounced Drummond at a human rights conference in Santa Marta in August 2012, armed men showed up at Perez’s house, warning that now they would really act because he had ignored their previous messages. His wife would find him in a pool of blood, “because they didn’t like snitches or sons of bitches or human rights defenders,” Perez said. After this incident, he sent his family to live in another country; as of March of 2013 he was under government protection.

Although the AUC formally disbanded in 2006, many former groups that have been demobilized have simply re-organized into criminal gangs and go by a different name. The threats continue against labor union leaders across the country, not just for those with Sintramienergetica. According to the National Labor School, an organization based in Medellin that researches labor issues, between 2010 and 2013 alone there were 1,634 threats made against union workers and 139 assassinations. Union leaders contend these numbers likely underestimate the scope of the problem.

Human-rights advocates familiar with the issue see the threats as a means to undermine the collective bargaining power of workers, in order to keep wages low and deny workers’ rights. It seems to be working: The disincentives to joining a union are so strong that for most workers, it’s simply not worth it. A mere 4 percent of Colombian workers boast union affiliation.

Union members and leaders across Colombia told the Center that the government has been negligent in protecting workers and that the problem is so widespread it impedes the true purpose of labor unions.

“Our work has become about defending the lives and safety of our fellow members. So now the fight is not to get paid better wages or rights for workers, but to avoid being killed,” said Edgar Paez, who works on international relations with the food workers union, Sinaltrainal.

While the government offers protection to those who are facing threats through its National Protection Unit under the Ministry of the Interior, there is fierce competition for this limited resource. Many union leaders also complain that the scope of the services is insufficient to protect them.

“They argue that the zone is now at peace and that is not true. In the region where we work and especially where there is union activity, there is a continued presence of paramilitary groups,” said Florez, who was denied protection while serving as one of Sintramienergetica’s leaders.

These problems have not completely escaped the attention of the international community. When the United States signed a Free Trade Agreement with the country in 2006, Congress hesitated to enact the agreement because of Colombia’s poor labor rights record. In response, a Labor Action Plan was signed in 2011 to pressure Colombia’s government to create more protections for unions. It called for a number of criminal justice reforms, as well as outlawing union breaking collectives and temporary service agencies — commonly used tools that undermine the bargaining powers of workers. 

Critics have called the plan a tool to ease the consciences of U.S. policymakers rather than provide the teeth Colombia needs to make real adjustments. And a report published last year by U.S. Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Jim McGovern, D-Mass., highlighted the continued obstacles union workers faced.

Gimena Sanchez, a senior researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America says the action plan has helped put a dent in the problems union workers face. “Trade union workers were on the verge of becoming extinct,” she said. 

But difficulties remain. “There’s still an enormous amount of pressure to not investigate these cases [of intimidation], because of the economic interests involved and because it would bring to light the true intellectual authors of these crimes,” Sanchez said.

Questions linger about how to mitigate the problem. Some union workers see court cases like the ones Drummond faces in the United States as an important step toward creating greater corporate accountability.

With few other options, the danger of being part of a union remains a necessary sacrifice for some.

 “Of course I feel fear,” Florez said. “To not feel fear is to not be human. But we have a duty and a commitment to fight these injustices, and so we put our fate in the hands of God.”