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Audiencia in Bogota

By: 
Michael Sweiven
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

On December 5th in Bogotá the union of workers in the Colombian food and beverage industry (SINATRAINAL) held the third in a series of audiencias, or public hearings, to expose Coca Cola’s use of paramilitary death squads against its workers.

This day was chosen because it is the sixth anniversary of the murder of Isidro Segundo Gil Gil, a Coke worker and president of the SINALTRAINAL local in Carepa. Gil was in the midst of negotiations at the Coca-Cola plant, when the factory’s management allowed a unit of the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) into the plant, who proceeded to shoot him dead.

The audiencia heard testimony from Luis Adolfo, the vice president of Gil’s local. According to his testimony, he only escaped death himself by running four blocks through crowded streets to a police station. He was not killed during his escape or in the station—where the police spoke of getting free beverages from the paramilitaries and Coca-Cola—because he was well-known in Carepa and there would have been too many witnesses to his murder.

Adolfo was able to flee to Bogotá and now lives in an AFL-CIO-sponsored protection program in Chicago. He spoke of the difficulty living apart from his family since that time, saying, “I never had problems like these until I went to work for Coca-Cola.” Adolfo, the only witness to Gil’s murder, was only able to appear in Bogotá under constant guard and wearing a bulletproof vest.

Other testimony included that from a worker in Barranca who had been placed in detention by the Colombian army after Coca-Cola accused him of working with the guerrillas. He broke into tears when speaking of the inhuman conditions in which he was held. After being held for two months, the government was forced to release him for lack of evidence.

Wives of imprisoned union members explained the impact imprisonment has on families, made worse by the fact that Coca-Cola refuses to offer any financial assistance. Emotions ran high during these extremely moving accounts, with audience members spontaneously calling out remembrances of their fallen companeros.

Coca-Cola assassina
Several workers told of how they had been kidnapped and tortured by the paramilitaries who demanded they renounce the union. This is standard practice for Coca-Cola as they seek to replace older workers and union activist with lower paid non-union workers. After the murder of Gil, Coke allowed the death squads back into its plant to tell the remaining union members that if they did not renounce the union they would be killed. The union then ceased to exist, and the average pay at the plant was reduced from $380-$400 per month to $130, the minimum wage.

The day also included two spirited morning rallies. Conference participants began the day at the gates of Coca-Cola’s plant in Bogotá , where 300 people rallied chanting “Coca-Cola assassina.” The participants then took busses to the US embassy where they marched around the massive complex and where the union handed to a representative of the US government a demand that Coke be prosecuted for its human rights abuses in Colombia. The case of Isidro Segundo Gil Gil is now being litigated in US courts. With Coca-Cola claiming no responsibility for the actions of its Colombian subsidiary.

One success of the event was that it brought many international participants together in support of SINALTRINAL and its members. Participants included a delegation of about 20 from the United States as well as people from Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Argentina, Cuba and other countries across Latin America. An advisor to the left caucus in the European parliament spoke of demonstrations in Belgium that aim to spur on the case against Coke in the international criminal court.

The meeting ended with the passing of a 27-point resolution that placed demands on Coca-Cola. Among the demands were:

    1.Those guilty of committing the murder of unionists be brought to justice.
    Coke pay reparations to family members of murdered unionists.
    Company executives responsible for the employment of paramilitaries be immediately dismissed.
    Coke commit to respect the human rights of all its employees wherever they work.

According to SINALTRINAL’s president Javier Cerrer, “The day was a success because it made our members feel stronger. They were able to come together with other members of the union and international supporters, and now they know they’re not alone in their difficult struggle.”