Court Rules that Human Rights Case can go Forward
Against Coca Cola Bottlers
In a March 31, 2003 ruling, U.S. District
Court Judge Jose E. Martinez ruled that cases brought by Colombian
Plaintiffs under the Alien Tort Claims Act ("ATCA") for
human rights violations committed by paramilitaries on behalf of
Coca-Cola bottlers Panamerican Beverages, Inc. ("Panamco")
and Bebidas y Alimentos ("Bebidas") in Colombia can go
forward. Significantly, the court held that the allegations were
sufficient to allow the case to proceed on a theory that the paramilitaries
were acting in a symbiotic relationship with the Colombian government.
This satisfies a technical requirement of the ATCA that there was
a component of "state action" in the acts of violence
against the Plaintiffs, which allows the international law claims
to proceed against the private actors Panamco and Bebidas...
In these cases, there are four separate
actions filed by different sets of Plaintiffs. In all of the cases,
SINALTRAINAL, the union of food and bottling workers in Colombia,
is a Plaintiff, and alleges injuries due to a campaign of violence
directed at the union by paramilitaries employed by the Coca-Cola
bottlers. Javier Correa, the union's President, hailed the decision
as "bringing the workers of Colombia one step closer to justice".
Other Plaintiffs include the Estate of Isidro Gil, who was murdered
inside the Bebidas bottling facility in Carepa by paramilitaries
brought in by the plant management. Other claims include kidnapping
and torture of union leaders by paramilitaries working on behalf
of Panamco bottlers.
In allowing the case to go forward against
Coca-Cola bottlers Bebidas and Panamco, the court dismissed Coca-Cola
Company and Coca-Cola Colombia from the case on the ground that
the company's bottling agreement did not explicitly give Coca-Cola
control over labor relations issues of its Colombian bottlers.
Terry Collingsworth, Executive Director
of the International Labor Rights Fund and co-counsel for the Plaintiffs,
indicated that Plaintiffs would appeal that portion of the decision...
Collingsworth explained. "We are absolutely convinced as a
factual matter that one word from Coca-Cola would stop the campaign
of terror against trade union leaders in the Coca-Cola bottling
plants in Colombia. We are entitled to gather evidence on this point
and prove it at trial," he added.
Finally, Collingsworth said that "it
should bring small comfort to Coca-Cola that the court has ruled
that, while the company is not technically in legal control of labor
relations at the Colombian bottling plants, there are sufficient
allegations that the company's two bottlers in Colombia, Panamco,
which is partly owned by Coca-Cola and is designated as one of Coca-Cola's
"anchor bottlers," and Bebidas have indeed engaged paramilitary
groups to terrorize union leaders. The question still is, why is
Coca-Cola allowing this to happen, and how many other acts of murder
and torture are required to get Coca-Cola to intervene?
In a similar situation in Guatemala in the
early 1980's, Coca-Cola was forced by a consumer campaign to terminate
its bottling agreement with a Guatemalan bottler who had used right
wing death squads to murder union leaders at that facility. Pointing
to this situation, Dan Kovalik noted that "wholly apart from
legal liability, Coca-Cola remains the sole entity that can change
the practices of its bottlers".
Terry Collingsworth called upon all of the
human rights and student groups and others that are protesting Coca-Cola's
policies in Colombia to redouble their efforts. "Coca-Cola
apparently will only respond to pressure from consumers. As we saw
in the Guatemala situation, the company will never do the right
thing unless it is forced to by_consumers".
The ILRF has also asked Attorney General
John Ashcroft to prosecute Panamco and Bebidas under 18 U.S.C. §
2339B, which makes it a crime to provide material support to terrorists.
The paramilitary groups working with Panamco and Bebidas have been
designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.
Press Release by the lawyer