U.S. Firm Cleared in Deaths of 3 Colombians

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 27, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia, July 26 -- A federal jury in Alabama on Thursday rejected accusations that an American coal operator contracted hit men to kill three union leaders at the firm's Colombia mine in a trial that was closely watched by other U.S. corporations facing similar lawsuits.

After a two-week trial, the jury found in favor of Drummond, a Birmingham-based coal company. Drummond had been sued by relatives of the union leaders under an arcane 18th-century law that permits U.S. corporations to be sued in American courts for alleged rights abuses committed abroad. The decision is sure to be welcomed by other major U.S. companies -- many of them energy firms like Drummond -- that have faced a spate of suits from foreigners who say the companies violated their rights.

"They can take comfort in the verdict that the jury returned," said Carl Tobias, an expert on federal courts at the University of Richmond School of Law. "I think these are incredibly important cases, but very difficult cases. They're so politically charged, with so many international ramifications."

Lawyers who brought the suit against Drummond, as well as other legal experts who have followed similar suits, said this was the first time a U.S. company had gone to trial under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which was approved in 1789 to fight piracy and protect American interests abroad. The Bush administration has said rights abuse lawsuits that resurrected the old tort statute have been frivolous. But the Supreme Court in 2004 upheld a ruling that foreigners could sue in U.S. courts for abuses abroad, though under tightly defined legal limits.

Drummond, which was sued in 2002, the year after the three men were killed, celebrated the verdict. The company has long argued that it had nothing to do with the paramilitary groups that operate in Cesar state, where the company operates an open-pit mine that produces 25 million tons of coal a year.

"This day has been a long time coming," Drummond said in a statement. "We are pleased with the jury's verdict."

Still, Drummond continues to face scrutiny. Colombian prosecutors have been investigating possible ties between paramilitary groups and the energy company. And on Capitol Hill, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), who chairs the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on human rights, recently held hearings on Drummond's activities in Colombia and is planning another hearing on allegations against the company.

The undisputed facts are that gunmen from a coalition of paramilitary groups pulled Valmore Locarno, president of the local Drummond union, and Victor Orcasita, another union official, off a bus in March 2001 and fatally shot them. Almost seven months later, Gustavo Soler, who had succeeded Locarno as local president of the union, was also taken from a bus and killed. In Colombia's shadowy conflict, paramilitary groups ostensibly formed to fight rebels have killed hundreds of union activists, often accusing them of being rebel sympathizers.

News of the verdict stunned a close relative of Soler, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. "There were a lot of witnesses and evidence to show that the company does collaborate with the paramilitaries," she said. "We went to the United States because we thought there would be justice."

The relatives' attorneys, as well as union leaders here who helped build the case against Drummond, said they would not give up.

"We're going to appeal," said Francisco Ramírez, general secretary of Funtraenergetica, a federation of unions representing energy and mine workers. "The fight continues."

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