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Did a US company hire a Colombian paramilitary group?

A lawsuit alleges that Drummond Company paid a right-wing paramilitary for protection.

Three members of United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) point with their weapons during a training session in a rural area of Puerto Asis, Putumayo province southern of Colombia in May 2000. (Reuters)

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.