Colombia, Coal & Murder

My family and I have recently taken to watching re-runs of the X-Files.   As the reader might recall, this was a show which revolved around two independent-minded and quite earnest FBI agents who are engaged in an incessant search for the truth — “The Truth is Out There” being the subtitle of the show.  And, the quest of these two agents is forever stymied by dark, shadowy government figures from some unknown government agency who are conspiring to cover up the truth.   By the end of each episode, our loveable agents find themselves incarcerated, near-death, lost, out of their minds, or all of the above as retribution for their quest for truth.

One of the reasons I can relate so much to these characters is that I have my own confounding X-file — this one involving the murder of three unionists in Colombia in 2001.

In March of 2001, I was in Colombia with a delegation from the United Steelworkers union to show solidarity with unionists who were under the threat of violence, including murder.  As has often been said about Colombia, “it is the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist.”  This was as true back then as it is now.

On the evening of March 12, our delegation met in Bogota with representatives from a number of Colombian mining unions, and listened to their stories of losing union brothers and sisters to murder by right-wing paramilitary groups.   As we discovered the next morning, at around the same time we were at this meeting, the two top union leaders at the coal mine of Alabama-based Drummond Company were murdered by paramilitaries in the department of Cesar.

Upon learning of these murders, and after hearing of the suspicions of some Colombia unionists that Drummond may have had something to do with them, we went to the U.S. Embassy asking for an investigation into this crime.   However, we were quickly shut down by the human rights attaché at the Embassy, Mari Tolliver, who would not even deign to meet us in her office, but instead met us in the cafeteria near the vending machines.   Mari, whose ostensible job involved human rights, told us point blank that the Embassy’s job is not to investigate U.S. companies for alleged human rights abuses, but, instead, to facilitate business for them.   So much for Mari’s job description.

The facts of the murder of these two individuals – union president Valmore Locarno and vice-president Victor Orcasita – are undisputed.   Thus, on the evening of March 12, 2001, the Drummond bus taking Valmore and Victor home from the mines was stopped by armed paramilitaries.   These paramilitaries then boarded the bus, asked for Valmore and Victor by name and pulled these two individuals off the bus.  The paramilitaries shot Valmore in the head at close-range killing him almost instantly.  Meanwhile, these same paramilitaris took Victor away to a river bank where they tortured him before taking his life.

What remains a mystery is who ordered the hit on Valmore and Victor.  Gustavo Soler, another Drummond miner who succeeded Valmore as union president, gave an interview to The Nation magazine in late August of 2001 in which he stated, “We think that some person from the mine had contact with the assassins because they knew exactly which bus [Locarno and Orcasita] were on.”  Shortly after making this public declaration, Gustavo Soler was pulled off a bus taking him home from the mines by paramilitaries who then proceeded to kill him.

It was the murder of Soler which ultimately prompted human rights lawyer Terry Collingsworth and I to file suit against the Drummond Company in which we alleged that Drummond was behind these killings.

For about 5 years, from the filing of our lawsuit on March 12, 2002 through the trial of the case in July of 2007, the search for the truth behind these killings was an all-consuming part of my life.   I would travel to Colombia, Panama and Venezuela to meet with witnesses who claimed to know who ordered the killings of the three unionists.

One common thread in the stories of these witnesses was a man named Luis Carlos Rodriguez, a retired Colombian army Colonel, who also served as head of security for the Drummond mine in Colombia.  A number of our witnesses pointed to Colonel Rodriguez as the point man between the company and the paramilitaries.   We therefore sent notice to Drummond’s law firm, Baker Botts, that we wanted to depose Colonel Rodriguez in the case, and a date mutually agreed-upon was set for deposition.   Then, just about a week before this deposition, Colonel Rodriguez, we were told by Baker Botts – the “Baker” of the firm being former Secretary of State James Baker – no longer worked for Drummond and the firm would therefore be unable to produce him for deposition.  And, just like that, Colonel Rodriguez had disappeared from the case, never to be heard from again.

Meanwhile, we tracked down other leads.  On a tip from a journalist, I flew down to Colombia on Mother’s Day weekend, 2006, to meet with Rafael Garcia, a former agent of the Colombian DAS (the analogue to the U.S. FBI) who was in jail for his own crime of allegedly aiding and abetting drug dealers while working for the DAS.   At the same time, Mr. Garcia was a critical, and quite credible, witness in a number of high-profile cases against state officials in Colombia.  It also turned out that Mr. Garcia claimed to have knowledge about the Drummond case, and indeed signed a sworn affidavit, upon my visit with him in jail, saying that he witnessed the Colombian president of Drummond hand a suitcase full of cash to a top paramilitary commander in return for the paramilitaries carrying out the killing of Valmore and Victor.

For my “crime” of publicizing the Rafael Garcia affidavit in the press, I was held in contempt of court by District Court Judge Karon O. Bowdre, the judge assigned to the Drummond case.   While this contempt order was later overturned by the Court of Appeals, my standing with the District Court was shot.

In the end, we were never able to present Rafael Garcia as a witness in our case.   Judge Bowdre initially denied us the right to do so, a ruling which stood for months.  Fearing reversal from the Court of Appeals on this ruling, she later changed her mind just before trial – in the end, not in time for us to work through the complicated Letters Rogatory process (a diplomatic process between the U.S. and Colombia) necessary to be able to present Mr. Garcia’s testimony for trial.   And, without his testimony, and without that of the vanished Luis Carlos Rodriguez, the trial was lost.

Meanwhile, my former partner in the case, Terry Collingsworth – an individual with much greater intestinal fortitude than me – sued Drummond again for the same crime.  Neither my employer nor I were up for chasing this white whale again.  Moreover, as the wise Karl Marx realized, I recognized in this case that the first go-around would be tragic, while the second time would be farce.  And so, we took a pass on Drummond II, a case which is still pending.

Still, a day hardly passes that I don’t think about that case, and why those three men were killed.   For me, that case is a microcosm of all that is wrong with U.S. policy toward Colombia – a policy which sacrifices the lives of every-day Colombian people to corporate profit and greed, and to the narrow geo-political concerns of the United States.

Just yesterday morning, I woke up to see a Google news alert flagging a story about “Drummond” and “Colombia.”  According to this story in Colombia’s El Tiempo, a man named Jaime Blanco Maya, a former food service contractor for Drummond, pled guilty to conspiracy to kill Valmore and Victor.   El Tiempo explains that a representative from the U.S. Embassy (exactly who, the paper does not say) attended the court proceedings in which this guilty plea was made.

In his confession, Blanco stated that others from Drummond were involved in the conspiracy.  Specifically, he mentioned a Jean Hakim, who he claims was head of security for Drummond in Colombia as well as an agent of “the CIA in the service of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.”   I had never before heard the name, “Jean Hakim,” though there was a “Jim Adkins” who met the very same description.  And indeed, in a 2009 U.S. Embassy Cable, released by Wikileaks, another individual accused of participating in the murder conspiracy, a paramilitary named Jairo de Jesus Charris Castro named Jim Adkins as a key co-conspirator.   As the cable relates:

Charris testified on September 3, 2009, that he accompanied Jaime Blanco to a meeting at the request of the DRUMMOND security chief, Jim Atkins, on March 6, 2001. Atkins reportedly asked Blanco if he had ties to the AUC (paramilitary force) and indicated there were some “jobs” that needed to be done, notably to get rid of SINTRAMIENERGETICA union leaders. In addition to company owner  Gary DRUMMOND and DRUMMOND President Mike Tracy, Charris said Jim Atkins listed Jimenez and seven other DRUMMOND employees who agreed that the paramilitaries should kill the labor leaders. In his May 7, 2009 testimony in COLOMBIA, Charris said Gary DRUMMOND ordered Atkins to plan the murder of the labor leaders.

Curiously, the Embassy, as revealed by this cable, is more concerned about the bad publicity all of this has brought to Drummond, indeed entitling the cable, “U.S. COMPANY DISTRAUGHT OVER PUBLICITY LINKING IT TO LABOR MURDERS.”  And indeed, while we have written to the Justice Department on several occasions, beseeching it to investigate Drummond and its officials for these murders, no action has been taken by the Justice Department.

This is not altogether surprising as the head of the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric Holder, defended Chiquita banana company in the criminal case in which Chiquita pled guilty to paying paramilitaries $1.7 million, and running them 3,000 Kalashnikov rifles, over a 7-year period, with the result being at least 4,000 civilians murdered by these armed actors.  Holder helped Chiquita with a sweet deal in its guilty plea – a deal which required it to pay a mere $25 million fine (and not all at once, mind you, but over 5 years), with no jail time for any of the 8 known officials involved in the payment scheme.

As I think of this, human rights attaché Mari Tolliver’s explanation about the true nature of the Embassy’s role in Colombia rings in my ears.

Meanwhile, as Frank Bajak of the Associated Press (AP) reported some time ago, Drummond had in its employ a retired lieutenant colonel named Julian Villate who Drummond hired from the U.S. Embassy.   The Embassy, in turn, had hired Villate, a former trainer at the infamous School of the Americas, after he was charged by the Colombian government of being the intellectual author of a plan to “neutralize” (including, through murder) 150 social leaders in Colombia.  Villate’s name surfaced in 2007 when then-Senator Gustavo Petro, now the Mayor of Bogota, accused him of being behind a plot to assassinate him.

El Tiempo also explained in its story from yesterday that Jaime Blanco fingered the vanishing retired Colonel Luis Carlos Rodriguez as a participant in the murder conspiracy.

For me, this X-file will always be an open one, filling me with unease and a healthy dose of regret and remorse over an endeavor which ultimately did not succeed – either by way of a jury verdict or by way of getting to the truth of what really happened.   In terms of what happened, the compelling questions are: What was the involvement of the company in the conspiracy?  What was the role of the U.S. government, either through the CIA or Embassy, in either aiding and abetting the crime, or in helping to cover it up and protect those involved after the fact?  These are questions which are important, but which may never be answered.

In the end, I do take solace in one fact mentioned in the El Tiempo article – that it was the Drummond case which played a key role in the long delay of the passage of the Colombia FTA.  Having aggressively opposed the FTA with Colombia over the years, I have always liked to believe that our efforts in the Drummond case were not in vain; that some good came of all this.  But again, this belief, like the facts of the murder case themselves, has amounted to something that I could never prove.

Daniel Kovalik is Senior Associate General Counsel of the United Steelworkers, AFL-CIO (USW).

Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.