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U.S. firms linked to Colombia militias

A former soldier tells Congress that the companies provided financial support to outlawed groups.

June 29, 2007|Josh Meyer and Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A former paramilitary soldier told a congressional panel Thursday that several U.S. companies provided financial support to illegal militias accused of killing Colombian civilians.

Edwin Guzman, a former Colombian army sergeant who later became a paramilitary member, testified that his military units were responsible for guarding the property of the Birmingham, Ala.-based Drummond coal company, which has extensive operations in Colombia.

Guzman said that the Colombian military also worked closely with right-wing paramilitary units housed on Drummond premises in a joint effort to protect the company and its coal shipments from leftist guerrillas.

Drummond provided company vehicles, gasoline and other supplies to the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, Guzman said.

It has been illegal for U.S. companies to provide financial assistance to the AUC since September 2001, when the U.S. government designated it as a terrorist organization. But Guzman told members of three House Foreign Affairs Committee panels that protection agreements between the outlawed groups and corporations were commonplace.

"Drummond is not the only company paying for the services of the paramilitaries. There are many other companies that are paying," Guzman said through an interpreter. "I hope the members of the Congress investigate these things further because every time we raise these things in Colombia, they try to erase our testimony any way they can."

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Allegations denied

Drummond has denied the allegations and told lawmakers Thursday that it could not comment on Guzman's allegations due to a pending civil court case that alleges the company was behind the slayings of three union leaders in 2001.

The chairmen of two of the subcommittees, Reps. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), said the four-hour hearing was only the first step in what they hope to be an aggressive investigation of whether U.S. corporations were underwriting violence in Colombia by paying protection money to paramilitary groups.

Both lawmakers cited the case of Chiquita Brands International Inc., which recently acknowledged paying nearly $2 million to the AUC and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to protect the company's banana-growing operations and employees in Colombia. Chiquita agreed to pay $25 million in fines to settle a Justice Department investigation, admitting to doing business with U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. The FARC also is listed as a terrorist group.

The Democratic leadership in Congress, citing such concerns, has begun reexamining Plan Colombia, the billiondollar anti-drug and anti-terrorism program that has been in place since 2000.

Two of the union leaders, Victor Orcasita and Valmore Locarno were pulled off a company bus and killed. Gustavo Soler, who replaced Locarno as union president, was killed in a similar fashion seven months later.

Guzman testified Thursday that Colombian army training "tells us that we have to attack the leftists in any way we can, and that unions are guerrilla groups and we have to attack them by legal and illegal means."

But he stopped short of telling the lawmakers that the military conspired with paramilitary groups to kill the union workers, or other civilians. And he said he had "no evidence on how Drummond gave money to the paramilitaries."

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Union seen as a threat

In his prepared remarks, Guzman went further, however, saying that an AUC commander, whom he identified as "Cebolla," told him that paramilitaries were responsible for the slayings of Locarno and Orcasita. He said paramilitaries and the Colombian army shared the opinion that the Drummond miners union "represented a subversive organization and consequently a legitimate military target."

"I must confess that we in the military viewed the murders of Valmore Locarno and Victor Orcasitos in early 2001 as military victories," Guzman said. "I do not have that opinion today, but I did back then as a consequence of my military training."

Guzman also said in the statement that the AUC killed many civilians on and around the Drummond property, and that he was ordered while in the military to help cover up any links between their deaths and the coal company.

Engel said the allegations against Drummond, if true, "would be an extremely serious violation of our laws.... It appears that we have only scratched the surface of U.S. corporate malfeasance in Colombia."

Maria McFarland, a Colombia specialist for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, testified Thursday that 2,515 Colombian trade unionists have been killed since 1986, nearly two-thirds of them by paramilitary groups.

In March, Colombian Atty. Gen. Mario Iguaran said in an interview that his office was investigating claims by a government witness now in jail that Drummond paid paramilitaries to kill the three union leaders.

The witness is believed to be Rafael Garcia, a former official of the Department of Administrative Security, Colombia's equivalent of the FBI, who previously accused former department director Jorge Noguera of providing paramilitaries with information on union leaders who later were killed.

In an interview with The Times last year, Drummond's Colombia chief, Augusto Jimenez, denied the charges.

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josh.meyer@latimes.com

chris.kraul@latimes.com

Meyer reported from Washington and Kraul from Bogota, Colombia.

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