Colombia's other Coke

When in anti-union Colombia, does Coca-Cola do as the Colombians do?

If Coke's marketing jargon is correct, the company has a simple mission: "The Coca-Cola Company exists to benefit and refresh everyone who is touched by our business."

In spite of that peppy goal, lawyers for workers in Colombian bottling plants say the company's touch has been downright chilling — deadly, in fact.

Last month, the Atlanta soft-drink giant wiggled free from a $500 million civil lawsuit filed nearly two years ago in a U.S. District Court in Florida. The suit alleges that Coke, along with its bottlers, conspired with right-wing paramilitary terrorists to break up union activities in Colombian bottling facilities.

While Coke has been dismissed from the case, the judge did allow the suit to move forward against the other defendants: bottling company Panamerican Beverages Inc.; its subsidiary Panamco; bottling company Bebidas y Alimentos; and Bebidas' owner, Key Biscayne, Fla., resident Richard Kirby.

And the plaintiffs haven't given up on Coke. They recently filed a motion asking Judge Jose Martinez either to reconsider his decision or allow them to appeal it.

According to the lawsuit, Coke and managers at its bottling facilities use Colombia's near lawlessness to their advantage by conspiring with anti-union paramilitary groups to bust up the unions.

Coke has done business in Colombia since 1940, the decade the country began its spiral into Latin America's longest civil war. That war has produced leftist guerillas, right-wing paramilitaries, cocaine cartels and a government that can't control rampant violence — much less corporate behavior.

Coca-Cola doesn't deny that unionized bottle-plant workers are targeted for violence. Rodrigo Calderon, the company's spokesman in Latin America, says Coke does all it can to protect the workers. Among other things, the company provides secure transportation to and from work, and union members can get extensive life insurance, as well as company loans to pay for home security.

Union leaders are given even more protection, Calderon says, including personal bodyguards, armored vehicles and loans to improve security both at home and in union offices.

The plaintiffs dispute that Coke and the bottlers supply all those benefits.

And the protections weren't enough for Isidrio Gil. In 1996, Gil, a Carepa, Colombia, bottling plant worker, represented the food and beverage union, known as SINALTRAINAL, in negotiations with Bebidas y Aliementos over a contract stipulation that would have required the plant to protect workers from the paramilitaries. At the time, according to the lawsuit, union members were facing threats of violence from plant manager Ariosto Mosquera and paramilitary soldiers who allegedly worked for him.

The paramilitaries are non-governmental units, often led by former military officers, that enforce the interests of landowners and corporations. They're responsible for many of Colombia's most brutal human-rights abuses, including torture and murder.

On Dec. 5, 1996, two paramilitary gunmen approached as Gil stood inside the plant gate. "They asked him if he was in fact Isidro Gil," the lawsuit says. "Isidro Gil responded, 'What for?'" The men said they needed to see someone inside the plant — not an unusual request. When Gil opened the gate, however, they shot him to death. That same night they set the SINATRAINAL union hall on fire.

Coke acknowledges that Gil was killed by paramilitaries while he was at the bottling facility. But Calderon says the union is blaming Coke only because of its name recognition.

"It provides them with publicity for their agenda ... " he says. "We are not saying that those things have not happened in Colombia. We are very well aware that Colombia is a dangerous place to live."

Nobody in Colombia was prosecuted in connection with Gil's murder. But in 2001, his family joined with five other Bebidas and Panamco workers to sue the bottlers and Coke, alleging that the companies shared responsibility for intimidation, kidnapping, false imprisonment, torture and assassination of workers.

Coke argues that it had no control over security at Colombia plants and that protecting workers there wasn't its responsibility.

The lawyer hired by the International Labor Rights Fund to file the lawsuit counters that Coke is hiding behind Colombia's violence and its convenient relationship with bottlers to brutally break up unions and lower its cost of business.

Daniel Kovalik, who also is a staff attorney for the United Steel Workers, argues Coke's dismissal from the case prevents anyone from understanding the company's labor practices and its relationship with bottlers. Before last month's ruling, Coke's lawyers filed only a "sample" bottler's agreement in pre-trial documents, claiming they hadn't had time to translate the actual agreements with Panamco and Bebidas.

But a few more details about Coke's relationship with bottlers are public. For example, Coke is Bebidas' only customer, which Kovalik says gives the Atlanta company enormous leverage over the bottler.

And in March 2003, Panamerican Beverages Inc. filed a proxy statement with the SEC stating that Coke exercised substantial control over it and its Colombian subsidiary, Panamco. According to the statement, Coke exercises control through its ownership of stock and other "unspecified agreements." Coke owns all the preferred stock in Panamco and holds two seats on Panamco's board.

Only a reversal of the ruling to dismiss Coke from the case would unveil the details of Coke's relationship to the two companies, Kovalik says. Without discovery, all that Coke has to offer in its defense is its word.

He argues that Colombian workers deserve a chance to know about Coke's involvement with the paramilitaries targeting them. "This," he says, "is a question of life and death for people there."

Judge Martinez could decide next month on the plaintiffs' motion to put Coke back in the lawsuit, or it could take months or even years for that ruling.