Did Coca-Cola torture and kill workers in Latin America?

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Dear Cecil: Is there any basis to accusations of Coca-Cola’s having tortured, killed, or otherwise violated the human rights of its employees in Latin America? Tell me the truth. Concerned Coke drinker


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

The truth in this case is a tall order. But maybe I can lend matters a little focus.

A few clarifications. First, we’re not talking about violating the rights of workers in Latin America in general, but specifically in Colombia. What with drug traffickers, left-wing guerrillas, and right-wing death squads, life in Colombia can be grim, particularly for union members — by one count something like 2,100 have been murdered since 1991. The killers are thought to be rightist paramilitaries, but few have been prosecuted for the crimes.

Second, detailed allegations have been made not about multiple murders but one murder, specifically that of Isidro Gil, a union leader who was gunned down on December 5, 1996, at the entrance to a Coca-Cola plant in the Colombian town of Carepa. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. federal court in 2001, Gil’s union claimed that before the murder the plant manager socialized with paramilitaries and announced publicly that he had told them to destroy the union. After the murder the other members of Gil’s local either quit the union or left town, allegedly after paramilitaries entered the plant and told them to resign or else. The suit mentions several additional killings circumstantially tied to Coke, but information on them is sketchy and I won’t take them up here. Various other charges have been laid against Coke elsewhere; to keep this manageable, we’ll stick to murder.

Third, notwithstanding the impression you may get from slogans like “Stop Killer Coke,” no one seriously contends that the Coca-Cola company of Atlanta, Georgia, orchestrated the murder of Isidro Gil or other union members. Coke bottling plants in Colombia, as in most of the world, are independently owned and operated. The argument essentially is that Carepa plant management called in goons and that Coke HQ, or at any rate its wholly-owned Colombian subsidiary, had advance warning but did nothing to prevent the violence.

Is it true? You got me. Basic points are in dispute. For example, a key allegation in the 2001 lawsuit is that on September 27, 1996, more than two months before the murder, the national office of Mr. Gil’s union sent a letter to the Carepa bottling plant manager accusing him of “working with the paramilitaries to destroy the union” and demanding security for the workers. A copy of this letter was allegedly sent to Coke’s Colombia office. When I asked the Coke people in Atlanta about it, they sent me a copy of a September 30 letter from the Carepa union local to the national office asking that the September 27 letter be retracted, saying that the local was “unaware of any relationship that the Manager may have with the Paramilitary groups.” A lawyer for the union suggests that a faction within the local may have been afraid of antagonizing the manager.

Events after the murder are no clearer. Coke says two separate judicial inquiries, one by a Colombian court and the other by the Colombian prosecutor general, “found no evidence . . . that bottler management conspired in or encouraged the murder.” The court finding that Coke has made available online does state, “Nowhere has it been established that any Company executive ever played a role in violating [workers’] rights.” However, the ruling doesn’t mention the Gil murder but rather addresses a related case.

A Coke lawyer says he has read the prosecutor general’s decision and that it specifically discusses the Gil case and absolves the bottling company of blame. No one has been able to supply me with a copy of this decision, though, and it’s impossible to say how thoroughly the matter was investigated. The union’s lawyers say no investigation was conducted at all and no one was ever charged with Gil’s murder.

In 2003 a U.S. federal judge threw out all charges against Coke and its Colombian subsidiary on the grounds that they didn’t control the Carepa plant. Pending a resolution of the remaining charges against local bottler management, the Colombians are taking their case to the public. U.S. labor organizations and activists have rallied to the cause, among other things organizing a Coke boycott on college campuses in North America and Europe. In 2004 Coke general counsel Deval Patrick resigned, reportedly because Coke’s then CEO nixed his plan to send an independent fact-finding mission to Colombia. Coke now has a new CEO and is considering a fresh inquiry into its Colombian labor practices. A question not on the table, but which I think is still pertinent, is: Who had Isidro Gil killed?

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.