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Drummond denies colluding with far-right death squads to kill Colombia unionists

Published by MAC on 2007-03-22

Drummond denies colluding with far-right death squads to kill Colombia unionists

The Associated Press

22nd March 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia: The U.S.-based coal company Drummond on Thursday denied any relationship with far-right death squads in Colombia and said it has no intention of settling a U.S. lawsuit that alleges its complicity in the murder of three labor leaders.

A federal judge in Alabama this month allowed a civil suit to go forward against Drummond Co. Inc. for allegedly paying a hit squad to kill three union leaders at one of its Colombian mines in 2001.

Colombia's chief prosecutor on Tuesday also announced a formal criminal investigation into allegations Drummond, based in Birmingham, Alabama, had ties with the paramilitaries.

"Drummond publicly states that it has not nor will it make any payments, agreements or transactions with illegal groups and emphatically denies that the company or any of its executives has had any involvement with the murder of three labor union leaders," the company said in a statement Thursday. "It will not settle with the plaintiffs."

Drummond's defense comes as another U.S. multinational, fruit giant Chiquita Brands, has acknowledged funneling US$1.7 million (€1.3 million) to far-right paramilitary militias in Colombia. Chiquita has agreed to a fine of US$25 million (€18.7 million) for funding the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC for its Spanish initials and branded a "foreign terrorist organization" by the U.S. State Department.

Colombian authorities are investigating whether to bring criminal charges against Chiquita's executives and seek their extradition to stand trial here.

This nation is embroiled in its worst political scandal in decades as revelations continue to emerge tying the country's political class — many of them backers of President Alvaro Uribe — to the AUC, which has trafficked extensively in cocaine, committed massacres and stolen millions of hectares (acres) of land from peasants.

Paramilitary chiefs, most in jail under a peace process that has seen more than 31,000 fighters lay down their arms, say they got support from politicians and businesses. But they have stopped short of identifying their corporate sponsors.

Drummond mines coal along the Caribbean coast, a longtime paramilitary stronghold, and at Thursday's news conference, Jose Miguel Linares, a local Drummond vice president, acknowledged that one of the company's directors, Alfredo Araujo, is a cousin of Sen. Alvaro Araujo, who was jailed last month on charges of conspiring with the paramilitaries to kidnap a political rival.

Alvaro Araujo's father, a regional political power broker, is wanted on the same charge and has an international arrest warrant outstanding.

The scandal prompted Sen. Araujo's sister, Maria Consuelo, to step down as foreign minister.

Drummond said it has full confidence in Alfredo Araujo.

The company also appears to have been shaken by accusations from a former paramilitary collaborator, Rafael Garcia, who is serving a prison sentence for wiping clean the records of drug traffickers when he worked for the secret police.

Garcia says he was present when the president of Drummond Colombia, Augusto Jimenez, handed over "a suitcase full of money" in 2001 to a representative of regional paramilitary warlord Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, better known as "Jorge 40".

"Mr. Jimenez indicated at this meeting that this money was to be given to Rodrigo Tovar Pupo to assassinate specific union leaders at Drummond," Garcia said in a May 13, 2006, written statement to the lawyers of the three murdered union leaders. Garcia said later that the union members killed were the same as those mentioned in the meeting.

A Drummond lawyer, Hugo Palacios, said Thursday that the company "emphatically denies" such a meeting. "Civil and criminal charges for slander and defamation against Garcia have been filed and we are confident that it will be proven that Garcia's testimony is false," he said.

In October, President Uribe said in a radio interview that he had been told by executives of the coal company that Jimenez was not in Colombia at the time of the alleged meeting.

Drummond is Colombia's second-largest producer of coal, the nation's No. 2 legal export.

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