Written by Daniel Edgar exclusively for SouthFront
Over the last few weeks three workers employed by Nestlé subsidiaries in Colombia have been murdered in circumstances that indicate they were deliberately targeted for assassination; in one case, the victim had been warned (along with several other Nestlé workers in the region) that he would be considered a military target if he did not renounce his membership of the trade union SINALTRAINAL (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores del Sistema Agroalimentario – the National Food Industry Trade Union). SINALTRAINAL has been the victim of official and extra-official persecution, threats and selective assassinations since its foundation in the early 1980s. At least 28 of its members have been murdered, including 17 members who were employed by Nestlé subsidiaries and seven employed by subsidiaries of Coca Cola.
The efforts to destroy the trade union have taken many forms over the years, and demonstrate a high degree of continuity, coordination and cooperation between State officials (variously including politicians, bureaucrats, judges, prosecutors, police and intelligence personnel as necessary in any given instance), corporate executives of the two gigantic junk food companies, and paramilitary groups (or other hired assassins). The close relations and mutual interests between State officials and corporate executives are reinforced by the revolving doors of employment that exist between both companies and senior State officials.
A book published by SINALTRAINAL in 2015 describes the efforts of the trade union to secure justice with respect to the assassination in 2005 of one of its leaders (Luciano Romero). The authors state:
“The dynamics of oppression of the trade union movement take many forms. Based in the institutions of the State, they include official stigmatization and the instigation of judicial processes against trade union activities, the individualization of work contracts, and in synthesis placing all the force of the law in favour of the interests of large corporations, most of which are owned by foreigners. The forms of oppression utilized extend to systematic persecution and violence perpetrated against the trade unions, such activities often being delegated to paramilitary armies to obscure the direct responsibility of the companies and of course of the State…
While it is true that in Colombia these strategies are implemented in the midst of an armed conflict they are not an integral part of the conflict as such, they do not obey the internal dynamics and tensions of the conflict. Rather, they respond to interests, generally transnational, which are uniquely situated to benefit from the conflict…
In accordance with this broader strategy and objective, these practices are implemented in Colombia as a generalized and systematic attack against the trade union movement executed by an organized structure of power that guarantees impunity for its highest levels.”
In the case of the murder of Luciano Romero, following several preliminary successes in the Colombian courts (including the prosecution of several paramilitary members and two intelligence officials as the material authors of the murder, and a court order demanding the investigation of evidence suggesting knowledge or collaboration by Nestlé executives) prosecutors have subsequently refused to investigate the evidence of collaboration between paramilitary groups, State intelligence, military and police personnel, and the management of Nestlé’s (and in other similar instances Coca Cola’s) subsidiaries in Colombia.
Having failed to obtain a comprehensive investigation in Colombia, SINALTRAINAL and Luciano Romero’s family were assisted by several NGOs in Europe (in particular Multiwatch, a Swiss coalition of civil society organisations, and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights) in order to seek justice in the jurisdiction of the parent company. In Switzerland, the Office of the State Prosecutor accepted the file, then failed to commence investigations for over a year until they could claim that the Swiss statute of limitations precluded any formal investigation. Subsequently, the European Tribunal of Human Rights refused to consider whether the Swiss judicial system had fulfilled their obligations to conduct an impartial and comprehensive investigation without giving any reasons for their decision.
The most recent murders suggest that the campaign of State/ Corporate persecution and terror continue, supported by the failure of the judicial system in almost all instances to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators, intellectual authors and beneficiaries of the crimes, in the broader context of the ongoing implementation of a brutal counterinsurgency doctrine that defines all social, political and economic opponents to the status quo as ‘internal enemies’.
The Persistence of the Counter Insurgency Doctrine and State/ Corporate Terror
José Honorio Martinez (2016) describes the role of the paramilitary groups in the application of the counterinsurgency doctrine waged by the Colombian Government in close cooperation with the US:
“Paramilitarism has been a pillar of the dominant political regime in Colombia, the oligarchic State, since the 1960s. As Giraldo states in the official report of the Historic Commission on the conflict in Colombia and its victims (published in 2015):
“The counterinsurgency strategy of the State has been founded upon paramilitarism. The official version of the phenomenon places its origin in the 1980s and explains it as arising from the reaction of rural land owners and agricultural and business associations to confront guerrilla actions, in response to which the land owners and businessmen in rural areas decided to create private armies to defend themselves, from which came the name commonly used to refer to such groups, ‘self-defence forces’. This remains the essence of the official version today. However, the real origin of paramilitarism, as proven by official documents, can be traced back to the Yarborough Mission, an official mission to Colombia by officials of the Special Warfare College of Fort Bragg (North Carolina) in February 1962. The members of the commission left a secret document, accompanied by an ultra-secret annex, containing instructions for the formation of mixed groups of civilians and military personnel, trained in secret to be utilized in the event that the national security situation were to deteriorate…”
The formation of paramilitary forces was itself preceded by the creation of private militias at the service of large landowners in the late 1940s and early 1950s that ravaged the countryside during ‘the Violence’ (a brutal civil war that claimed over 200,000 victims and displaced millions of people from rural areas)… The prolongation of the strategy of paramilitarism over time and the role that it has played in the neoliberal era, violently displacing rural communities and taking over their land for agricultural, mining, energy and infrastructure mega-projects or to extend the domains of large cattle ranches, signified the construction of a para-State exercising dominion over large swathes of the territory, population and institutions of the country.
While it may well be that the paramilitary armies no longer receive orders directly from the government, that doesn’t mean that substantial sectors within the military establishment and other State institutions don´t still consider them to be allies in the fight against the counterinsurgents and therefore continue supporting them and maintaining the relationship of subordination. Considered in these terms, paramilitarism isn’t just a group of criminal gangs that has infiltrated State institutions but rather represents a continuation of the armed elements of the para-State.
The ongoing assassination of human rights defenders, farmers and militants of the opposition (leaders and members of political parties and social movements opposing the traditional political parties and their offshoots) in the country denotes the maintenance of the same pattern of extermination practiced over the decades, at times varying in degree and intensity but always following the same methodology and objectives as outlined and implemented by the doctrine of National Security: anti-communism…
Giraldo describes the essence of this doctrine as follows: “In the arsenal of the doctrine of National Security, fundamentally comprising books (in the Library of the National Army), editorials and articles appearing in the Journal of the Armed Forces and in the Journal of the Army, discourses, presentations and reports of high level military commanders and their advisors, as well as in a collection of Counter-Insurgency Manuals marked as secret or confidential, ‘communists’ are explicitly identified as trade unionists, farmers who don´t sympathize with or who are reluctant to cooperate with military operations on their farms, students that participate in street protests, militants of non-traditional or critical political forces, defenders of human rights, proponents of liberation theology, and sectors of the population generally that are not in conformity with the status quo…”
More recently, a report jointly produced by a group of prominent civil society organizations (Mesa Nacional de Garantías, 2018) also testifies to the continuity of the counterinsurgency doctrine notwithstanding the official endorsement of the peace process following the conclusion of the Final Accord with the FARC:
“The State continues denying the existence of paramilitary groups and since 2006 has baptized them with names that disguise their political character and the links that these groups have with the institutions; Criminal Bands (BACRIM) or Organized Armed Groups (GAOs). The Minister [of Defence] has repeatedly declared that – ‘In Colombia paramilitarism doesn’t exist. To say that there is paramilitarism in Colombia would be to grant political recognition to some bandits dedicated to common or organized delinquency’ – failing to acknowledge the paternity that the State has in the creation and maintenance of the paramilitary structures, favouring their creation in accordance with distinct military manuals related to combatting guerrillas and the counterinsurgency doctrine of the State.
Paramilitarism is part of a State policy, anchored in the doctrine of national security, which establishes among its strategies for fighting counterinsurgency, the persecution of social movements, opponents, social leaders and human rights defenders, all of whom are denominated internal enemies and equated with the guerrilla groups, and on this fundamental basis they are stigmatized and attacked. It is worrying for civil society that in spite of the Peace Accord, this doctrine is still in place and has not been modified, that it continues justifying and naturalizing aggressions against the social and human rights movements…
[The most recent initiatives of the Executive and the Congress with respect to paramilitary groups] appear more like a project to thwart the judicial processing of these groups and perpetuate the pseudo-confrontation that the State says it is maintaining against them. They appear to reflect a fear that these groups could be effectively dis-activated and that they might begin to state the truth as to who have been the financers, promoters and beneficiaries of their actions…
[In addition], the national State Prosecutor still has not investigated the confessions made by senior paramilitary commanders in the Justice and Peace jurisdiction providing evidence of the alliances and participation of more than 120 companies with the paramilitary structures, including Drummond, Chiquita Brands, Postobón, Ecopetrol, Termotasajero, the National Cattlemen’s Union, and businessmen, banana and cattle producers in Urabá who were identified as financing their crimes and supporting the expansion of paramilitary groups in the region…”
Corporate Impunity and ‘Diplomatic’ Immunity: two other constants of the social and armed conflict in Colombia
In the case of personnel involved in implementing the US’ role in the elaboration and execution of the counterinsurgency doctrine and other official programs of bilateral assistance such as Plan Colombia and Plan Patriota, the exclusion of judicial investigation is reinforced by the existence since at least 1962 of bilateral agreements that provide ‘diplomatic immunities and privileges’ from Colombian laws and jurisdiction of any type (extended in 2003 to include international law and the International Criminal Court).
The “General Agreement for Economic, Technical and Related Assistance Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Colombia” of 1962 (typically cited in subsequent bilateral agreements that perpetuate the status of diplomatic immunity for all US government personnel and contractors), established to facilitate and formalize the furnishing of “economic, technical and related assistance to the Latin American countries participating in the Alliance for Progress” in order to ‘assist national development’ and ‘achieve economic and social progress’, includes the provision that:
“The Government of Colombia will receive a special mission and its personnel to discharge the responsabilities of the Government of the United States of America hereunder and will consider this special mission and its personnel as part of the diplomatic mission of the Government of the United States of America in Colombia for the purpose of receiving the privileges and immunities accorded to that mission and its personnel of comparable rank.” (Article III)
This sphere of ‘privileges and immunities’, liberally extended to include the many contractors involved in implementing distinct elements of bilateral assistance programs, has been completed by the cover provided by the US government to personnel and contractors accused of having committed crimes in Colombia (see for example Renán Vega, 2015: CAJAR, 2008). Another fundamental aspect of the US participation in the social and armed conflict has been, and continues to be, the clandestine manner in which most related activities are conducted: “Public awareness of the participation of the United States has been deliberately minimized by its covert nature; in accordance with this strategy, many of its activities in Colombia have been ‘planned and executed in such a manner that they can be hidden, or at least enabling plausible deniability of responsibility for such actions.’” (Renán Vega, 2015, quoting Dennis Rempe)
More generally, the ability of Nestlé and Cocoa Cola to avoid judicial investigation are just two examples of the almost universal impunity enjoyed by many multinational companies in Colombia, notwithstanding the emergence of evidence indicating varying degrees of collaboration by multinationals with paramilitary groups on numerous occasions.
One of the cases in which the evidence is most compelling of active collaboration by a ‘foreign investor’ in the commissioning of crimes by paramilitary groups, including crimes against humanity, is Chiquita Brands. Its executives admitted in judicial proceedings in the US that its subsidiary in Colombia (Banadex S.A.) paid approximately $1.7 million to paramilitary groups between 1997 and 2004, including after the US government designated them as terrorist organizations (in 2001).
“These resources, which converted Chiquita Brands into one of the most important financers of the AUC [national paramilitary structure], furthered the massive commission of crimes against humanity and grave violations of human rights committed by paramilitary organizations in the regions of Urabá and Santa Marta, including forced displacement, homicides, torture, forced disappearances, among others.
In this context, on the 5th of November 2001 approximately three thousand AK-47 rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunition, an arsenal that was transported on the ship Otterloo, were unloaded and introduced into the national territory. The ship was unloaded in the port of Zungo, specifically on the docks belonging to the company Banadex S.A., from where the arms departed in fourteen trucks to be delivered to the paramilitary organizations in Córdoba and Urabá. The then paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño admitted publicly that this development constituted ‘his best goal’.
The majority of these arms were not surrendered as part of the paramilitary demobilization process realized between 2003 and 2006. On the 16th of January 2008 the continued use of such arms was revealed when the national police took possession of 47 AK-47 rifles from the ‘demobilized’ paramilitary organization of Daniel Rendón Herrera (alias Don Mario), older brother of the ex-paramilitary commander Freddy Rendón Herrera, that appeared to have originated from the shipment brought by the Otterloo.
Apart from being documented in the Colombian and United States judicial systems, this relationship between Chiquita Brands International and the paramilitary structure in Colombia – and thereby the responsibility of this company in the commissioning of multiple crimes against humanity and grave violations of human rights – has been corroborated during the last year by different paramilitary commanders such as Salvatore Mancuso Gómez (alias Santander Lozada), Freddy Rendón Herrera (alias El Alemán), Rodrigo Tovar Pupo (alias Jorge 40), Nodier Giraldo Giraldo (alias el Cabezón or Jota), and Éver Veloza Garcia (alias HH).” (CAJAR, 2008; pp.1-2)
In 2003 the Organization of American States conducted an investigation of the arms traders and transporters involved in obtaining the weapons and transporting them to Colombia upon the request of the foreign ministers of Colombia, Panama and Nicaragua. They determined that the arms were bought from the Nicaraguan police by Shimon Yalin Yelinek, an Israeli citizen resident in Panama, with fraudulent documents claiming that the arms were for the Panamanian police. Shimon Yalin Yelinek was acting on behalf of a company domiciled in Guatemala, GIR S.A., whose owner and general manager (Ori Zoller and Uzi Kissileveich respectively) are also Israeli citizens and former members of the Israeli military (Ori Zoller was identified as also being a representative of Israeli Military Industries in the region). The arms were transported on a vessel registered in Panama.
The investigation did not examine what occurred in Colombia in any detail. In this respect the report states that:
“Colombia is the victim of the deviation of the arms. However, some Colombian customs officials were probably accomplices or bribed by the AUC in order to permit the unloading of the arms and ammunition from the Otterloo in the Port of Turbo…
What really occurred in Turbo is still a mystery. The signing of a form of the Antioquia Section of the Department of Administrative Security in Port Turbo by the captain of the Otterloo, Iturrios Maciel, clearly demonstrates that the ship arrived to Turbo. But, beyond that, all that is known is that in some way the arms ended up in the hands of the AUC. This would signify that someone in Colombia associated with Yelinek, Onattopp Ferriz [the owner of the Otterloo] or, maybe even the captain of the Otterloo Iturrios Maciel, was definitively responsible for the entry of the illegal arms to Colombian soil.” (OEA, 2003)
On the 30th of March 2004 the Supreme Court of Panama closed the investigation of Shimon Yalin Yelinek on the pretext that none of the relevant events occurred in Panama. (Frenadeso Panamá, 2005) The case has never been conclusively investigated by the authorities in Colombia. Other Israeli arms traders and mercenaries (invariably ‘ex-members’ of the Israeli military) have been identified as being involved in the training and equipping of paramilitary groups and the military wings of drug cartels on numerous occasions (see for example, José Luis Bernal, 2015: PGAWC, 2010). Although not enjoying official ‘diplomatic immunities and privileges’ as in the case of their US counterparts, it has proven no less difficult to investigate and hold them accountable for their involvement in the commissioning of crimes against humanity and a host of other crimes in Colombia.
Testimony provided by the former paramilitary commanders in the region where Chiquita Brands operated suggests that many of the companies were willing if not enthusiastic financers and in some cases active collaborators in the activities of the paramilitary groups, and also reveals the devastating effects of these activities for the workers and trade union members in the region. Among the declarations of former paramilitary commanders in judicial proceedings and interviews:
“In an interview on the 7th of May 2007, Salvatore Mancuso declared: ‘All of the banana producers paid us. All of them… A pact was made with Chiquita Brands Inc, Dole, Banacol, Uniban, Proban and Del Monte. They paid us one cent per dollar for every box that left the country. The other companies of the sector make a monthly payment. The company Dole took responsibility for receiving the money and finalizing the operation, which the companies were well aware of and which was qualified as a contribution to the ‘Convivir’ organization Papagayo… The massacres also enabled them to dismantle the social assistance programs they had pacted with the trade unions…’
In the same program ‘60 Minutes’ of the 11th of May 2008, Salvatore Mancuso assured the interviewer that ‘there was no need to exert pressure, blackmail or threats against the banana companies so that they would pay those percentages. The truth is that we never thought what would happen if they didn’t pay us, because they [the representatives of the companies] did it gladly…’
A computer belonging to Jorge 40 supposedly has files that list shipments of cocaine to Europe on ships loaded with bananas. ‘According to our intelligence reports, the company [used for these shipments] is called Chiquita’, according to a report of the national Prosecutor General’s office…
In open testimony rendered before the Justice and Peace Unit on the 10th of July 2008, Éver Veloza Garcia, alias HH, ex-paramilitary commander of the ‘Bloque Bananero’, reiterated ‘that it was the banana companies that paved the way for the arrival of the paramilitary groups to the region in order to combat the guerrilla groups.’ Furthermore, he said that the Convivir were created to legalize the payments of the companies for the military sustenance of the illegal group… And acknowledged that they forced the workers to work, by way of threats, when they organized strikes. He also acknowledged the assassination of banana workers. ‘The banana producers never paid us to assassinate trade union members, but it was clear that with the money they paid to the AUC many crimes against workers were committed’, he said… The paramilitary commander revealed that many of the banana ships were loaded with drugs from various ports. In some cases, divers at the service of the drug traffickers ‘secured tubes containing drugs to the hull of the ships’ in the open ocean to avoid security controls… ‘Every month, 4,000 kilos of drugs left towards Panama and Central America just from our zone’, Veloza Garcia assured…
In open testimony submitted before the Justice and Peace Unit on the 10th of July 2008, Éver Veloza Garcia (alias HH), ex paramilitary commander of the ‘Bloque Bananero’, affirmed that ‘the strikes by the workers were very damaging for them (the banana companies), they lost a lot of money when the workers protested, and when we arrived to the zone, in 1995, there was not one more strike’…
‘With the war that took place in Urabá, the only winners were the banana companies’, Éver Veloza Garcia, the former paramilitary commander in that Antioquia sub-region, affirmed before the Justice and Peace Unit…
EL COLOMBIANO: ‘All of the banana producers paid?’
ÉVER VELOZA GARCÍA: ‘When I told about our relations with the banana producers everybody started shouting, that that was false. And then Chiquita acknowledged the payments and is fined in the United States. Everyone paid, we are hoping now that Hasbún helps clarify the management of the Convivir and the banana producers. The Convivir were the legal figure utilized by the AUC to receive the payments. The businesspeople and politicians that provided money for the war are equally or more responsible. They were angry because I said that with that money we killed people and trade unionists, not one or two, many. They didn’t give us money so that we would kill someone acting upon their specific orders, but with that money we bought arms, ammunition, food, it was them that paid the lads. They must recognize that and be present, because the people that benefitted most from the war in Urabá were the businesspeople’…” (Testimony cited from various sources in CAJAR, 2008; pp.6-10)
Pilar Chato (2017) reported on the latest efforts to hold the executives of Chiquita Brands accountable, an application to initiate proceedings before the International Criminal Court:
“What they are trying to do is ensure that the role of those executives in contributing to the commissioning of crimes against humanity is investigated…
Sebastian Escobar, a member of Cajar, emphasized the open investigations ‘without results’ in Colombia and the ‘lack of political will’ to extradite those possibly responsible. To this he added the ‘difficulties and inability’ of the State to investigate the 14 suspects. In part, because obtaining their extradition from the United States ‘is very difficult’ – a North American citizen has never been extradited to Colombia – and partly, due to the impossibility of obtaining declarations from the Colombian paramilitaries extradited to the United States, who moreover are leaving prison having completed part of their sentence and are obtaining residency permits there.
Escobar also denounced the impunity that could exist for these crimes with the new ‘Special Justice of the Peace’ tribunal [‘JEP’, established pursuant to the peace accord with the FARC], due to the difficulty of proving that the financing of paramilitaries by banana producers is related to the armed conflict, because the legislation establishing the JEP excludes from its jurisdiction civilians indirectly implicated in the conflict – the ‘third parties’ – and because in Colombia the financing of paramilitary organizations is deemed to be an aggravated crime of conspiracy to commit an offence, which is not within the jurisdiction of the JEP either.”
In this way, as in earlier periods it seems that everything possible is being done to perpetuate the implementation of the counterinsurgency doctrine and State/ Corporate terror under the leadership and control of the United States and to prevent the roles of the other financers, enablers and beneficiaries of these policies to be revealed and held accountable for their involvement.
- José Honorio Martinez, 2016, “La vigencia del paramilitarismo, las fisuras en el bloque de poder y la paz”, Prensa Rural, Tuesday, 5 April 2016, http://prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article19053
- Mesa Nacional de Garantías, 2018, “Persistencia del paramilitarismo y falta de voluntad Estatal para su judicialización y desmantelamiento”, https://coeuropa.org.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/160418-Persistencia-y-Falta-de-Voluntad-para-Desmantelar-Paramilitarismo-FINAL.pdf
- Colectivo de Abogados ‘José Alvear Restrepo’, 13 de Mayo de 2008, “Sin justicia, sin verdad, sin reparación: Extradición a medias”, https://www.colectivodeabogados.org/?SIN-JUSTICIA-SIN-VERDAD-SIN
- Pilar Chato, “La sociedad civil lleva a Chiquita Brands ante la Corte Penal International”, 18 de Mayo de 2017, https://colombiaplural.com/la-sociedad-civil-lleva-chiquita-brands-ante-la-corte-penal-internacional/
- CAJAR (Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo), 2008, “Los Directivos de Chiquita Brands International”, Bogotá, https://www.colectivodeabogados.org/LOS-DIRECTIVOS-DE-CHIQUITA-BRANDS
- José Luis Bernal, 2015, “Colombia e Israel bajo la administración de Uribe”, http://www.scielo.org.co/pdf/rci/n84/n84a04.pdf
- OEA, 2003, “Informe de la Secretaría General de la Organización de los Estados Americanos sobre el desvío de armas nicaragüenses a las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia.”, Organización de Estados Americanos, OEA/Ser.G, CP/doc. 3687/03, Enero 29 de 2003, http://www.oas.org/OASpage/NI-COarmas/NI-COEsp3687.htm
- PGAWC, 2010, Buying into Occupation and War: The implications of military ties between South America and Israel, Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (PGAWC), March 2010, https://stopthewall.org/downloads/pdf/buy-in2-occ.pdf
- Renán Vega Cantor, 2015, “The International Dimension of the Social and Armed Conflict in Colombia: Interference of the United States, Counter-Insurgency and State Terrorism”, Chapter 13, Historical Commission of the Conflict and its Victims, A Contribution to Understanding the Armed Conflict in Colombia, (translated to English by Daniel Edgar), Havana, Cuba
- Frenadeso Panamá, 2005, “Frenadeso Nacionales”, http://www.frenadesonoticias.org/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1626
- SINALTRAINAL, 2015, “Luciano Lives”, Bogotá, http://www.academia.edu/19612088/Luciano_Lives