WASHINGTON — For more than a decade, leftist guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia have kidnapped or killed civilians, trade union leaders, police and soldiers by the hundreds and profited by shipping cocaine and heroin to the United States.
In that time, several American multinational corporations have been accused of essentially underwriting those criminal activities -- in violation of U.S. law -- by providing cash, vehicles and other financial assistance as insurance against attacks on their employees and facilities in the South American nation.
But only one such company -- Chiquita Brands International Inc. -- has been charged criminally in the United States. Now, a showdown is looming that pits some members of Congress against the Justice Department and the multinationals -- including an American coal-mining company and Coca-Cola bottlers.
The lawmakers say that, in the cases of U.S. corporations in Colombia, the Justice Department has failed to adequately enforce U.S. laws that make it a crime to knowingly provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization -- and they have opened their own investigation.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Colombian terror groups: An article in Sunday's Section A about American companies making payments to Colombian terror groups said a group of congressmen asked the Justice Department in 2003 to investigate allegations against two Coca-Cola bottling companies in Colombia that had been accused in lawsuits of collaborating with paramilitaries. The companies were dismissed from the suits in 2006.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 01, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
Colombian terror groups: A correction on a July 22 Section A article about American companies allegedly making payments to Colombian terror groups referred incorrectly to lawsuits accusing two independent Coca-Cola bottling companies of collaborating with paramilitaries. The correction, published on July 25, said the bottling companies were dismissed from the lawsuits. In fact, the single lawsuit itself was dismissed on procedural grounds, but the dismissal is on appeal and the companies remain defendants in the case, as the article originally said.
Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), who is leading the effort, has questioned whether the Bush administration is putting the interests of U.S. conglomerates ahead of its counter-terrorism agenda.
Even the plea agreement reached with Chiquita in March -- in which it acknowledged making the illegal payments -- has been criticized as far too lenient by many outside legal experts and some high-ranking Justice Department prosecutors.
"I think they've escaped any kind of appropriate sanctions," Delahunt said in an interview last week.
"We will take a good, hard look at how American multinationals operate around the world, using Colombia as a model," said Delahunt, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight. "It really deserves an exhaustive effort to examine where we need legislation and if there are gaps in our criminal code that allow U.S. corporations to aid or abet violence in other countries that erode our credibility and our moral standing in the world."
The Bush administration has declared that a hallmark of its counter-terrorism policy is to go after the financiers of terrorism just as aggressively as the terrorists themselves -- anywhere in the world. But the situation in Colombia underscores the difficulty in prosecuting such goals when it conflicts with American economic interests abroad and trade relations with friendly governments. Making the matter particularly sensitive, the U.S. is in the midst of negotiating a free-trade agreement with Colombia, and sends it billions annually in military and other aid.
"Do our economic interests trump the war on terror? Are we making trade-offs?" Delahunt asked. "If we are, at the very least the public should know about it."
Lance Compa, an international trade specialist at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, acknowledged that there were many competing priorities in Colombia.
"But the general proposition that gross human rights violations should be weighed against trade policy and foreign policy is a mistake," Compa said. "The paramilitaries have infiltrated the highest levels of the [Colombian] government, and the Bush administration is looking the other way.
"It makes it all the more incumbent on U.S. policymakers to put a stop to any corporate dealings with paramilitary death squads."
The right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, initially began as a security force in response to leftist atrocities, but it quickly transformed in the 1990s into a brutal organization with ties to Colombia's military, political and business establishment. The State Department designated the AUC a terrorist organization in 2001, making it a crime to provide the group with financial or other support.
Financial dealings with the paramilitaries have also been outlawed under a federal "drug kingpin" statute, because such groups are believed to supply 90% of the cocaine and 50% of the heroin consumed in the U.S.
For more than four years, lawmakers have been requesting information from the Justice Department about whether it is investigating "credible allegations" against some of the American firms, including some that were named in detailed civil lawsuits and forwarded to prosecutors, according to letters sent to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and his predecessor, John Ashcroft.
The lawmakers are particularly concerned about claims that the Drummond Co. coal-mining operations paid paramilitaries from the AUC to kill three trade union leaders who were trying to organize workers at its coal mines in 2001. Drummond has been accused in a civil lawsuit first filed in 2002 of using the AUC as a de facto security force that intimidated employees to keep them from unionizing and demanding higher wages.