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Mining and Murder in the Global Jungle

When Drummond Ltd. staked its future on rich coal reserves in war-torn Colombia, it shouldered a heavy load of political risk. But it may not have banked on allegations of corporate-sponsored murder.

The lead attorney for an international labor rights group says he plans to file a federal lawsuit holding Birmingham-based Drummond Ltd. Responsible for the murders of three union leaders in Colombia, S.A. And the president of the United Mine Workers of America blasted Drummond for failing to protect its Colombian workers, following the latest assassination.

The battered body of Gustavo Soler, president of the miners union representing 1,000 Drummond workers, was found on Oct. 7 on a road running from the sit of Drummond’s massive open pit mine, Mina Pribbenow, in the northeastern state of Cesar.

His was the third suck murder in eight months. In March Soler’s predecessor as president, Valmore Locarno, and the union’s vice president, Victor Orcasita, were murdered by paramilitaries who forcibly removed them from a Drummond company charter bus after labor negotiations at the mine.

“We strongly condemn these brutal murders of our trade union brothers, and we denounce the Drummond Co. for failing to protect its workers in Colombia after shifting its coal mining operations from Alabama,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America.

Terry Collingsworth, general counsel of the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund, said, “We are now on red alert to stop any further murders of Drummond workers in Colombia.” On Oct. 12 he said he was preparing to file suit against Drummond in federal court in Birmingham “in 30 to 60 days.”

Drummond officials declined interviews with Business Alabama but released a statement from corporate headquarters saying the company and the union have no part in Colombia’s armed conflict and that they are working together for the good of the country and its people by creating jobs and developing the region.

“Drummond Ltd. Finds this type of action deplorable from every point of view,” said the statement. “Drummond asks the respective bodies to begin an investigation aimed at stopping these terrible acts, which cause the company itself, its workers and mining sector in general much griefs.”

The International labor Rights Fund suit, said Collingsworth, “will show that Drummond was aiding and abetting the paramilitaries who killed these men. Whether the company brought them in for security purposed or to intimidate the workers, whatever, it brought them in, and it led to the murders, and Drummond is responsible. If you hire the Mafia for security and they kill somebody, you’re responsible.”

Collingsworth said the Drummond suit would follow the lines of a suit his organization filed in July in a Miami federal court against Coca-Cola. That suit alleges Coca-Cola and associated companies “hired, contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces” that murdered five union activists working for Coca-Cola plants in Colombia.

“Absolutely,” the allegations against Drummond will be as serious as those against Coca-Cola, said Collingsworth. “In the Coke case there were a number of deaths, but with the company (Drummond) in the last six months you have the murder of union leaders who were obvious targets of assassination. It’s about as extreme as you cold get.”

No one has been arrested in the murders of the three Drummond employees. Locarno and Orcasita, the first victims, were conducting labor negotiations the night of their deaths and had accused Drummond of violating Colombian labor laws.

According to Collingsworth and sources in the miners union in Colombia, the evening of the abduction Locarno and Orcasita told company officials that they had been threatened and asked to sleep overnight on the company grounds. “That has been an ongoing request,” said Collingsworth.

They were refused permission and were later pulled from a Drummond company bus by paramilitaries. Locarno was murdered on the spot and the body of Orcasita was found the next day.

Companies in Colombia are obligated to take extraordinary measures to safeguard their employees, said UMWA president Roberts, and “Drummond has failed,” he said.

“Over the past 16 years, nearly 2,000 UMWA members in mineral-rich northern Alabama have lost their jobs because Drummond shifted its mining production and sales to a country that is embroiled in civil war and cocaine trafficking,” said Roberts.

The voice of labor is even more strident on the local level, at a union office in Brookwood, Ala., scene of a recent mine disaster at a Jim Walter Resources mine.
“This is terrorism—pure and simple,” said Gary Tramell, 56, the president of the Local 2368 UMWA office in Tuscaloosa County. “This coal dripping with the blood of the Colombian coal miners and union members is being brought into Alabama through the Alabama State Docks and purchased by the Southern Company and burned by Alabama Power for the consumers of Alabama,” said Tramell, a 21-year veteran coal miner.

“The union people are getting killed in Colombia, and our union people are getting killed here in Alabama. Thirteen of our men died here in Alabama Sept. 29 in the deepest mine in North America because they are desperate for work and were pushed deeper by the threat of these Colombian coal imports coming into Alabama,” said Tramell.

Drummond imports around 4 million tons of Colombian coal a year. It goes through the Alabama State Docks, and Drummond’s largest customer is the Southern Company, parent company of Alabama Power and utility companies in Florida and Mississippi. Drummond has said it hopes to increase Colombian production to more than 10 million tons a year.

According to company officials, the $425 million Drummond invested in the opening of the Pribbenow mine in Colombia anticipated the replacement of reserves that were rapidly being depleted in Alabama.

Drummond started gearing up for operations 10 years ago in Colombia, targeting rich deposits of low-sulfur coal lying close to the surface. Since 1995, Drummond has shut down all but one of its mines in the U.S. Nearly half of Drummond’s utility coal sales in 2000—3.8 million tons—came from the Colombia mine, which opened in the mid-90s.

In the 53-year-old civil war in Colombia, among the numerous factions are right-wing paramilitaries who have a long history of murdering, abducting and torturing trade union leaders, whom they view as leftist subversives. According to Decree 180 of the Colombian government, trade union leaders are considered “terrorists.”

According to the human rights organization Committee of Colombia Jurists, last year some 6,000 Colombians were killed as the result of social and political violence, including 128 labor union leaders.

The U.S. State Department considers both the Colombian leftwing guerrillas and the rightist paramilitaries “terrorists,” though not of the Bin Laden variety. Congress last year authorized $1.4 million in foreign aid to Colombia—about 80 percent of its military aid—as part of a major peace and anti-drub initiative. Critics charge the money is being used to fight a counter-insurgency war to make Colombia safe for multi-nationals in this era of globalism.

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