Did a US company hire a Colombian paramilitary group?

BOGOTA — There is a railway line in northern Colombia where cars laden with coal rumble from the parched flatlands surrounding an open-pit mine across verdant swaths of coastal plains to a port on the Atlantic.

Until recently, the Northern Block of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, terrorized communities along the railway, as well as towns throughout the provinces of Cesar and Magdalena that the tracks traverse. The right-wing paramilitary carried out targeted killings, dumped its massacre victims in communal graves and caused thousands to flee their homes.

Now, a lawsuit filed in Alabama May 27 by Florida-based firm Conrad and Scherer accuses Drummond Company Inc. — a coal company with headquarters in Birmingham, Ala. — of paying millions of dollars to the AUC for “protection services” of its rail line, which had suffered attacks from left-wing guerillas.

“This financing allowed these paramilitary groups to grow exponentially and to enforce their paramilitary power on the populations around the railway,” said Rebecca Pendleton, senior paralegal at Conrad and Scherer, who traveled the region collecting testimony. The lawsuit contends that between 1999 and 2006, the paramilitary murdered hundreds of civilians while providing security for Drummond.

Drummond would not comment on the lawsuit.

In its defense of a previous lawsuit Conrad and Scherer filed against Drummond over the murder of three union leaders, the multinational company acknowledged the violence that had engulfed the region in which it operates. But according to Drummond, the company never assisted the paramilitary groups, or was complicit in paramilitary activities.

This week's civil suit refers to several meetings with top paramilitary commanders in which Drummond officials allegedly requested and paid for the AUC’s security services. The U.S. designated the AUC a terrorist group in 2001.

“We have direct testimony of participants that were in meetings between high-level paramilitaries and high-level executives of Drummond Company,” Pendleton said.

The complaint describes one such meeting in 2001, which was attended by the AUC's Northern Block commander, alias “Jorge 40." During the meeting, Drummond officials allegedly agreed to make a one-time payment of $1.5 million to the AUC followed by monthly installments of $100,000 for new troops and equipment for protection of Drummond’s rail line. By this time, lawyers say Drummond payments in 1999 had transformed the local front of the AUC from a small group of poorly equipped men to a 200-plus fighting force armed to the teeth.

“If Drummond hadn't financed the [paramilitary] groups in the zone, they wouldn't have strengthened the paramilitary, and perhaps they wouldn't have been able to cause all the damage that they did,” Claudia Barcero said by phone from Valledupar in northern Colombia.

In 2000, Barcero’s husband was sent along with six colleagues from the attorney general’s office to investigate and exhume a body that had “disappeared” in a community that was under the control of the paramilitary group Drummond is accused of financing. The forensic team never returned. Years later, paramilitary confessions pointed to the AUC as their killers.

Today, Barcero — who is one of over 220 plaintiffs in the Conrad and Scherer case — said she and other families are “looking for the remains of our relatives and for justice.”

The lawsuit does not refer to the plaintiffs’ names in order to protect their identities. The legal team in Colombia said many were nervous or reluctant to provide testimony out of fear of retaliation from the paramilitary which, though officially demobilized, still has active units in the region.

Such circumstances are one of the many challenges legal teams encounter in trying to bring hard evidence against companies long suspected of doing business with illegal armed groups. “In these cases, the legal principle is pretty clear,” said Beth Stephens, an international law expert at University of Rutgers-Camden in New Jersey. “To prove what happened is not easy.”

In Colombia, that may change. In 2003, the AUC started demobilizing under a government amnesty program (its Northern Block demobilized in 2006) that granted immunity to foot soldiers and reduced sentences for high-ranking paramilitary commanders who confessed their crimes.

Those confessions could be the linchpin that implicates Colombian and foreign companies in supporting paramilitary death squads. Now, in public hearings and from their jail cells, paramilitary leaders are providing key testimony about the money and directives exchanged between companies and illegal militia groups.

In March, Conrad and Scherer re-submitted the case it had lost in an Alabama court, based on new evidence provided by jailed paramilitary leaders who said the order to kill the three union leaders came from Drummond leadership.

Testimony from top AUC commanders was also crucial in a lawsuit filed against the Dole Food Company in California last month on behalf of the families of 57 Colombians the suit claims were killed by paramilitary members hired by Dole.

There are several cases, also filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act, pending on behalf of victims against Chiquita. The banana giant settled for a $25 million fine to the U.S. Justice Department after admitting in 2007 it had paid over $1.7 million to the paramilitary — the company said the payment was extortion money to protect its employees.

But for many of the plaintiffs in this week’s case, there is no possible explanation for Drummond’s alleged support to the paramilitary that would exclude the company from responsibility in the deaths of their family members. As Barcero said, “If they were involved in one way or another, they have to pay.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of a name on second reference.

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