|New York Times: Union Says Coca-Cola in Colombia Uses Thugs|
BOGOT?, Colombia, July 24 — An American labor-rights group and the United Steelworkers union have filed a suit in the United States that accuses Coca-Cola and some bottlers here of using a right-wing paramilitary group to intimidate and, in some cases, assassinate labor organizers. Coca-Cola adamantly rejected the accusations on Monday.
Along with one of the three bottlers cited in the suit, the soft-drink giant said the company and its affiliates abided by the laws of Colombia and other countries.
"We adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct and business practices and we require all of our companies, operating units and suppliers to abide by the laws and regulations in the countries that they do business," said Natalie Rule, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola in Atlanta.
Juan Carlos Dom?nguez, a spokesman for Panamco Industrial de Gaseosas, the major Coke bottler in Colombia, said his company was considering legal action against the plaintiffs. "Their purpose is to give out false information," Mr. Dom?nguez said in a telephone interview. "They are trying to tie us to groups that operate at the margin of the law."
The suit, filed on Friday in Federal District Court in Miami, arises in the midst of a fierce killing spree of union workers across Colombia, most of them slain by gunmen who belong to the main paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, union organizers and human rights groups contend.
Sixty-seven union members have been killed this year, mostly from unions that represent government workers like teachers and utilities workers, said the National Union School, a research and educational center in Medell?n. Last year, at least 130 were slain, the center said.
The suit, filed by lawyers from the International Labor Rights Fund in Washington and the steelworkers' union, was brought on behalf of the estate of a union leader killed in 1996 and others who have been threatened. The defendants, in addition to Coca-Cola and Panamco, are Panamerican Beverages of Miami, which owns Panamco, and Bebidas y Alimentos, a bottler owned by Richard Kirby of Miami.
The suit asserts that paramilitary forces killed three workers, members of the National Union for Food Industry Workers who worked in a Bebidas y Alimentos plant in Carepa in northern Colombia. The company declined to comment. No one has been arrested in connection with the murders.
Bill McCaughan, a lawyer in Miami who represents Mr. Kirby, said the allegations in the suit were "totally baseless."
"Mr. Kirby is a well-respected businessman," Mr. McCaughan said. "He has no association with either the paramilitary group or the guerrilla group, and obviously had no association with any group that would take any people out and shoot them."
Another three union workers at bottlers, whose cases were not mentioned in the suit, have also been killed by paramilitary forces since 1989, said Javier Correa, president of the union, also known as Sinaltrainal. The latest victim, Oscar Dar?o Soto, was killed on June 21 in a bottling plant in Monter?a, a port.
"We believe that this is part of the political persecution and terror that is a part of life here in Colombia against the unions," Mr. Correa said.
The number of union workers at Coke plants in Colombia has dropped, to 450 from 1,300 in 1993, he said. Total Sinaltainal membership — the union represents workers in many food industries — has dropped, to 2,400 from 5,800 five years ago, said Mr. Correa, and 14 union organizers have been assassinated.
The suit says that the bottlers "contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders."
Some of the most explosive allegations are directed at the Carepa plant. The suit contends that managers, in trying to break the union, used paramilitary gunmen to kill two organizers, Jos? Eleazar Manco and Luis Enrique G?mez, in 1994. The gunmen then threatened workers, forcing the executive board of the union to resign and leave the area.
A new board was soon elected by workers. But one of its members, Is?dro Segundo Gil, was killed in 1996 at the plant by paramilitary gunmen, the suit says.
The suit also contends that the plant manager, Ariosto Milan Mosquera, had told workers that he had given an order to paramilitary forces to destroy the union. The suit says Mr. Mosquera frequently associated with the paramilitary members and let them intimidate workers.
Two days after Mr. Gil's death, plant managers passed out union resignation forms that the suit says Bebidas y Alimentos prepared. Dozens of workers resigned soon after that.
Although Bebidas y Alimentos is a defendant in the suit, Mr. Mosquera is not.
"Mr. Gil wasn't just a worker who was randomly killed," said Terry Collingsworth, general counsel of the Labor Rights Fund. "He was involved in the union's ongoing representation of workers."
The suit also says unionists at Panamco plants were threatened, falsely imprisoned and tortured because of their union activities.
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