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Transcript

Colombia: The Coca-Cola Controversy

FRONTLINE/World Fellows

By Tovin Lapan and Rob Harris

Chapter 1: The Controversy

(Running Time 4:35)

E. Neville Isdell

CEO, Coca-Cola Company

Excerpted From Remarks at Coca-Cola Shareholders Meeting, April 19, 2005

From Coca-Cola Company Web Site

As many of you here today know, our company and our bottling partners have been accused in the complicity of the murder of union members and the ongoing intimidation of union members and of the suppression of union activity in Colombia. The allegations are not true.

Narration

Why was Isdell, chairman of the board of one of the world's largest corporations, taking time out of Coke's annual stockholder meeting this year to defend the company's labor practices in Colombia?

E. Neville Isdell

The people employed by our Colombian bottling partners work in facilities where their labor and human rights are respected and protected.

Narration

The controversy over Coke's relationship with its Colombian workers escalated when New York City councilman Hiram Monserrate, a Democrat and former cop, got involved.

Hiram Monserrate

We are here in front of the Coca-Cola plant in Barrancabermeja, where the union SINALTRAINAL has just had a demonstration of solidarity. Earlier we tried to enter the plant, and we were denied entry by Coca-Cola.

Narration

Monserrate went on a fact-finding mission to Colombia with a delegation of union leaders in January 2005. The report he issued upon his return blasted Coca-Cola.

Hiram Monserrate

The Coca-Cola workers told me harrowing tales -- tales of being beaten up, tales of being arrested and charged falsely, tales of having their families and themselves kidnapped by paramilitaries who were working in conjunction, according to their allegations, with Coca-Cola managers, plant managers.

Student Protestors on Street

We can say each university. We can say, "Coca-Cola came to town, NYU shut them down. Coca-Cola came to town, Hofstra University shut them down."

Narration

The issue has become a student cause. At the Coke shareholders meeting, student activists picketed out front. They represented campaigns on 70 college campuses around the United States, Canada and Europe to boycott Coca-Cola and cancel university contracts with the soft drink giant.

Dave Hancock

NYU Student Activist

We're the current student activists working on this, and we've done our research and we've done our work and we're taking you down slowly but surely.

Narration

And the Colombian union has brought a $500 million lawsuit against Coca-Cola and its bottlers, in Miami in federal court. But Chairman Isdell was probably responding most directly to the New York City Employee Pension Fund shareholders, which holds 270 million shares in Coke and brought a resolution before the shareholders meeting. The resolution called for Coke to allow an independent human rights team to investigate these crimes. Patrick Doherty, head of corporate responsibility for the New York City Comptroller's Office, presented the resolution.

Patrick Doherty

NYC Comptroller's Office

At Shareholders Meeting

Mr. Chairman, fellow shareholders, my name is Patrick Doherty, and I'm here today on behalf of the New York City pension funds to present our funds' resolution calling on the company to support the sending of an independent delegation of inquiry to Colombia.

Patrick Doherty

When they get to Third World countries, it becomes "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." They're going to these countries to make a profit; they're not going there to attempt to change the existing social system.

Narration

Chairman Isdell says Coca-Cola recently conducted its own inquiry into labor conditions and is convinced that the company has done nothing wrong.

E. Neville Isdell

There are no threats or attempts by management to attack or intimidate workers for being affiliated with a union or for being a union organizer or for being a union official.

Patrick Doherty

Now, no one is suggesting Coca-Cola executives sitting in Atlanta were ordering murder of trade union activists or the kidnapping of their children. However, these things did occur, and the company may have profited from these things having occurred.

Narration

The question is, did Coke help the paramilitaries in their quest to destroy the union? Did they know anything about it? If so, did they do anything to stop it? We went to Colombia to investigate for ourselves.

Chapter 2: Meeting the Union

(Running Time 6:45)

Narration

We flew into the city of Bucaramanga, a rapidly growing city built on the slopes of the eastern range of the Andes Mountains. It is home to the local chapter of SINALTRAINAL, the union that is suing Coca-Cola.

Luis Eduardo at the Chalkboard

El derecho asociar con los sindicatos ("The right to associate with unions")

Narration

In the last decade, a series of violent attacks on these union members, along with the closing of several Coca-Cola plants in the area, has decimated the union in this town. Its membership has shrunk from 350 to just 35 workers represented at the local Coke plant. The union has been under siege for years.

Union Chanting

¡Viva la patrocifica nacional! ¡Viva, viva, viva! ("Long live the national [XXXX]!")

Narration

For the last 30 years, Colombia has been torn apart by a civil war between leftist guerrillas and right-wing government and paramilitary forces. The majority of the deaths in this war have been civilians accused of sympathizing with one side or the other. Union leaders have been frequent victims of the paramilitaries' wrath.

Narration

SINALTRAINAL is a union with Socialist politics, and that amounts to painting a target on their chest.

Archival footage from SINALTRAINAL of a ghost puppet in front of Coke plant sign, a protest march sign, graffiti, hunger strikers in tent with IVs in their arms.

Narration

The union's militancy has also antagonized Coke management. Unlike the other 11 unions that have contracts with Coca-Cola, SINALTRAINAL has taken a very hard-line stance in defending its workers, staging periodic demonstrations. In 2004, they organized this hunger strike to protest local plant closings by Coke's largest bottler in Colombia, Coca-Cola FEMSA.

Singing.

Narration

Union leaders say they live with constant threats. Local union president Efrain Guerrero and his two bodyguards met us at our hotel. Guerrero's brother, sister-in-law and nephew were gunned down in their home by paramilitaries in April 2005.

Efrain Guerrero

They took the shirt, as proof that they did the job. I don't understand how this is happening in Colombia, but it is happening.

Narration

Guerrero showed us a copy of the death threat sent to him last year, signed by the local branch of the paramilitary. The letter threatens to kill Guerrero and other union leaders if they do not leave the city.

Efrain Guerrero

It says if I don't leave town, my family will be in danger.

Narration

These days, Guerrero carries a gun with him wherever he goes. Another union official, William Mendoza, told us that in 2002 his daughter narrowly escaped being kidnapped in broad daylight by the paramilitaries.

William Mendoza

A paramilitary chief named Andres Gavilan called me on my cell phone and said I was lucky because they were going to kill my daughter, who was 4 years old, and return her in a plastic bag.

Narration

Mendoza thinks he continues to be targeted because of his public criticism of Coke and because of an incident in 2003 when he spotted paramilitaries in the office of the local bottling plant. He says the paramilitaries were taking cases of Coke to sell for fund-raising. Mendoza believes the plant management had a deal with the paramilitaries for union busting.

William Mendoza

We saw the paramilitaries enter the plant while we were working. The same man entered the plant March 14 that the managers knew was paramilitary; [he] returned two days later with the managers' permission and took more product.

Narration

SINALTRAINAL members say they have also been persecuted by the regional government.

Albero González

In 1996, I was arrested (starts crying), accused of terrorism and rebellion and put in jail for six months.

Narration

Albero González and two other SINALTRAINAL workers were arrested for allegedly planting a bomb at the Bucaramanga Coca-Cola plant.

Albero González

(Crying) They tied me to a wall and beat me. They said, "You terrorist son of a bitch. You'll pay for what you did."

Narration

González and his co-workers were eventually released when a judge found that there never was a bomb. He believes the plant managers framed him.

Albero González

They had photos of my family, my daughter, of me everywhere, at company events and all over the plant. The photos were used during the trial: How I was dressed, when I came and left. So I asked myself, "Where are the photos coming from?" I realized they had come from the company.

Narration

González says he was targeted in order to destroy the union.

Albero González

The boss came and said, "If anyone supports these guerrillas, these terrorists, I will fire them." So everyone quit the union.

Narration

Another Coca-Cola worker, Luis Eduardo, was also thrown in jail for the nonexistent bomb. His daughter was hounded out of school for being the child of a terrorist, and his son is sometimes followed when he goes out at night. When he was released, Eduardo returned to work at the plant. His wife says he had no other choice.

Mrs. Eduardo

Here in Colombia it is very difficult to find work. It's not easy to provide for the kids. To sustain us here, he had to return there. It is very humiliating.

Narration

She says the paramilitaries are still watching her family.

Mrs. Eduardo

They threaten us. They call and say they know what my daughter is doing. It's like a psychological war.

Narration

Back at the union hall, pictures of slain unionists hang on the wall. But those who remain insist they are not giving up.

William Mendoza

We are continuing forward. They will kill us, but we have a saying that it is worth more to live for something than to die for nothing.

Chapter 3: Talking to Coke

(Running Time 6:45)

Narration

We wanted to talk to Coca-Cola in Colombia regarding SINALTRAINAL's allegations. But this was harder than it seemed. Coca-Cola's public relations people in the States had said they would help us get inside the plants to hear local management's side of the story. But it turns out that the bottling plant in Bucaramanga is not owned by Coca-Cola but by a Mexico-based company, Coca-Cola FEMSA.

Tovin dialing cell phone in hotel room

Narration

But they were less cooperative than we had hoped.

Tovin talking to camera in hotel

They told us they don't want us going into the plant or interviewing any workers or anybody at the plant or getting any footage of the bottling plant because they feel it could affect or compromise their position in the lawsuit in the United States.

Narration

Since Coca-Cola FEMSA's public relations department was actually in Costa Rica, we decided that we might have better luck dealing with the local management directly.

We arrived at the plant at 5:30 in the morning to meet some of the workers being brought in by bus for their 12- to 16-hour shifts.

Narration

Many of the workers didn't want to talk with us.

Tovin Lapan, Reporter

Perdón, disculpa ... ("Pardon, excuse me ...")

Narration

One of the union members pointed to a surveillance camera monitoring the driveway to the plant.

Herman (SINALTRAINAL Member)

They won't talk because they are scared.

Narration

We walked down the same driveway that the year before had been filled with union workers on a hunger strike. At the gate, we tried to sweet-talk our way in.

Tovin Lapan and Security Manager

Hola señor, mucho gusto. ("Hello, sir, pleased to meet you.")

Narration

This Coca-Cola bottling plant is not actually owned by Coca-Cola Company, the multinational corporation based in Atlanta, Georgia. Instead it has what is known as a bottler's agreement with other businesses that pay the Coca-Cola Company for the famous Coke formula and the right to use Coke's name and logo to sell the soda. Part of the bottler's agreement is that Coca-Cola is not legally responsible for the labor practices of its bottlers, like this one, a fact that Coke's lawyers have used to get their name removed from the lawsuit that the union brought in U.S. federal court.

Guard

Espere un momento, por favor. ("Wait one moment, please.")

Narration

In Colombia, most of the bottling plants are owned by Coca-Cola FEMSA, the Mexican company that owns this plant. The twist is that Coca-Cola owns a controlling interest in Coca-Cola FEMSA and dominates the board of directors of the Mexican company, a fact that the union's lawyers are using to try to bring Coke back into the lawsuit.

Tovin Lapan

Bueno. Sí, y luego ... ("Sure, fine. Yes, and then ...")

Narration

Although we couldn't get inside the plant, we did get the chance to talk with some nonunion workers. Robinson Jiménez works six days a week as a delivery person for a monthly salary of about US$250.

Robinson Jiménez

The truth is, the union is good. I would join. But let's just say, if I get involved, I'll find myself somewhere else. I'll get kicked out of the plant.

Narration

Gabriel Maldonado also spoke with us. He says he worked at the plant for 17 years, but was told he was fired when he showed up for work two days ago.

Gabriel Maldonado

They'll fire you for anything right now.

Narration

Although Coca-Cola FEMSA turned us away, the public relations head of Coca-Cola Company in Colombia, Pablo Largacha, agreed to talk with us at the company's headquarters in Colombia's capital, Bogotá.

Pablo Largacha

People outside Colombia who have a lesser knowledge of what is going on in our country are just being misled and misinformed by accusations that are not based on reality.

Narration

Largacha refused to talk about the specifics of the union's allegations because of the lawsuit in the United States, but he defended Coca-Cola's labor practices in Colombia.

Pablo Largacha

If you live in Colombia, you are subject to a more violent situation than if you live elsewhere around the world, with very few exceptions. We do think that people, workers, who work for the Coca-Cola system are safer even than Colombians who work for other projects in Colombia.

Narration

Largacha cited the ways Coke's system protects its workers from political violence.

Pablo Largacha

Our bottling partners have implemented some measures, like transportation to and from work and loans for the improvement of security in union offices and in the residences of union leaders.

Narration

Other unions that work at the bottling plants and have a friendly relationship with management express doubts that Coke is involved in the violence against workers. Carlos Ortiz is the president of SINALTREBEC, a union that has also had leaders killed, but he says the evidence against Coke just isn't there.

Carlos Ortiz

They say in Colombia that Coca-Cola sponsors the paramilitaries, that Coca-Cola assassinates union leaders. We don't have the proof, so we have not gotten involved. The day that we have the proof, we will definitely speak out. But for the moment, there is no proof for this.

Narration

And indeed, the public seems to agree with Ortiz. A campaign by SINALTRAINAL to boycott Coca-Cola in Colombia has been a complete failure. In fact, each Colombian consumes an average of 100 Coca-Cola products per year. Largacha thinks the boycott has failed partly because Colombians trust Coca-Cola.

Pablo Largacha

They see how the Coca-Cola Company and the Coca-Cola brand are not just the strongest marketing brand in Colombia, but one of the most admired companies in Colombia and one of the most sought-after companies to work for, not just by professionals, but by people in smaller cities where they own a family-owned bodega, or distribution center or mom-and-pop store. So they simply do not believe what SINALTRAINAL is saying against the company.

Chapter 4: Visiting a Bottling Plant

(Running Time 6:00)

Narration

We came to the Uraba region, the heart of banana country on the Caribbean coast of Colombia to visit the Carepa bottling plant. A decade ago, paramilitaries gunned down five SINALTRAINAL leaders and dismantled the union.

One of the slain union leaders, Isidro Gil, was shot just outside the bottling plant fence. The lawsuit in the United States alleges that plant management cooperated with the paramilitaries. The union's lawyers also sent us a letter that they say they had sent to both the plant owner and Coca-Cola executives in Colombia a full month before Gil was murdered. The letter requested protection from the paramilitary. But one of the union's lawyers, Pedro Mahecha, said there was no response.

Pedro Mahecha

It is very unlikely that Coca-Cola didn't know about the presence of paramilitaries in the region and the presence of paramilitaries in their own factory.

Narration

Gil's murder was part of a very violent time in Uraba.

Francisco Benítez

Local Butcher

Ten years ago was a difficult time. Lots of violence. Everyone lived in fear. Two or three workers would be killed and just left out in the street until the next day.

Narration

Local butcher Francisco Benítez was around during the 1990s, a period locals call "La Violencia." Local paramilitary and guerrilla forces fought for control of the region, and public massacres were commonplace. Gil and other SINALTRAINAL workers were killed during this same period.

A few years ago, the paramilitaries won the war in Uraba, and some stability and prosperity has returned, though the peace remains fragile.

Narration

This festival was sponsored by the local Coke plant, which is owned by Richard Kirby, a Miami businessman who is named in the lawsuit in the United States.

But the management of the plant has changed -- those in charge during the period when Gil was murdered have been replaced by new management.

Manager and Guard

Manager to guard: "Olindo." Olindo, the guard, to manager: "Señor."

Narration

And to our surprise, they let us in.

We spoke with workers who say they were at the plant when Gil was killed, back in 1996. After the murder, they say, the paramilitaries forced the union to disband.

First Coca-Cola Plant Worker

They intimidated us and told us to resign from the union in 24 hours or they would kill us.

Second Coca-Cola Plant Worker

It happened at 8 or 9 in the morning. By 5 or 6 in the afternoon, there was no more union. Everyone had to sign the forms renouncing the union. There was a stack of forms this high. The union was finished.

Narration

The workers were able to start up a new union in 2000, after the violence subsided. But it is still too dangerous in the region for SINALTRAINAL, and the new union had to get backing from the powerful banana pickers union. Osvaldo Cuadrado, president of the banana union, explained to us that in the past, many union members had sided with the guerrillas in the civil war.

Osvaldo Cuadrado

We worked in two spaces, the union part, the political part and the guerrilla part.

Narration

Cuadrado used to work as a banana union organizer during the week, then head for the hills to fight with the guerrilla forces on weekends. He said he did not know if any of the Coca-Cola union leaders were guerrillas, but they were targets.

Osvaldo Cuadrado

The paramilitaries began killing all those who stayed in the region who the paramilitaries thought were Communist and who they believed were still collaborating. It was like this for the Coca-Cola workers in Carepa. To the paramilitaries, they were auxiliaries of the guerrillas because they had the Communist ideology, so they began killing many workers.

Narration

In fact, as the paramilitary forces succeeded in driving the guerrillas out of the region, 700 unionists were killed. The murder of organizer Gil still haunts the workers at the Coca-Cola plant. We asked them if the managers had let the killers into the plant.

First Coca-Cola Plant Worker

Who would go up against these people? Yes, they came in. What could anyone here do? There was so much pressure that one of the managers quit.

Narration

Beyond that, the workers were evasive, clearly reluctant to provide details. They even refused to say for sure if it was the paramilitary that had shot Gil.

The workers reluctance to talk, the lack of a thorough police investigation, the climate of fear, the history of war between clandestine forces -- the more we learned about Colombia, the more we came to understand that this was the norm in much of the country.

By the time we left Carepa, we weren't much closer to clearing up the question of Coke's involvement in the attacks against the union activists. Our three weeks in Colombia had proved only that truth was a scarce commodity in a country immersed in a protracted civil war.

Chapter 5: Finding Justice

(Running Time 5:15)

Steve Dudley

Correspondent and Author of Walking Ghosts

Colombia is a place where not everything is clear, not everything is black and white.

Narration

Steve Dudley is The Miami Herald's correspondent in Bogotá. He has been reporting in Colombia for more than a decade and says the justice system is often circumvented in cases of political violence.

Steve Dudley

The problem with the way things play out here is that because there are no trials, we never really know who's involved in illegal activities, who's not involved and what the level of involvement is of those who are involved.

Narration

Two judicial inquiries have been made by the Colombian courts. They found Coca-Cola and its bottlers innocent of any involvement in the violence against the union. But as labor historian Daniel Garcia Peña says, the justice system in Colombia is broken.

Daniel Garcia Peña

National University of Colombia

Colombia has a horrible record of impunity.[DRILL STARTS] The chances of an assassin or a murderer going to jail in Colombia are very, very slim.[DRILL ENDS] It's sad to say, but crime does pay in Colombia.

Narration

One of the reasons no one is brought to justice, says Peña, is the immense political power behind the paramilitary forces.

Daniel Garcia Peña

These paramilitary groups control the local politicians, they control the local police chiefs, they control the local customs officials; in many cases, they own the HMOs and the health system. They own the lottery system locally, the contraband of gasoline -- they own everything, basically.

Narration

The power of the paramilitaries has made justice all but impossible in Colombia. Correspondent Dudley says this is one reason Coca-Cola has been targeted by the union -- the company can be sued outside the country, whereas the paramilitary is subject only to the Colombian courts.

Steve Dudley

It's very hard on a local level to build these cases. So, often, there's this "let's go to the international level" [mentality]. You know, possibly file a lawsuit in the United States, which is what has happened in the case of Coca-Cola. Then maybe in a civil suit, you can at least set the ball rolling so that if something happens, it will often have an impact here in Colombia.

Narration

And that's exactly what has happened. Because of the U.S. lawsuit and subsequent campaign against Coca-Cola back in the States, a demand for a full-scale investigation into the violence in Colombia is gaining support, including that of Doherty, of the New York City Comptroller's Office, which brought a resolution before the Coca-Cola stockholders meeting.

Patrick Doherty

Our position is that the company should bring in a team of investigators drawn from American and Colombian human rights organizations to go down to Colombia to fully investigate the allegations that have been made. And then let the chips fall where they may.

Narration

Coca-Cola rejects this plan. Chairman Isdell says such an investigation would undermine their defense against the Colombian union's lawsuit in U.S. federal court.

E. Neville Isdell

If a third party were allowed to come in and investigate matters that were part of an active lawsuit without the opportunity to have council present to test the statements being provided, this offends the statements of due process and clearly could prejudice their defense. As long this matter remains in the courts, the courts remain the appropriate venue to settle it.

Narration

But the pressure against Coke is mounting. In December 2005, New York University, the nation's largest private university, decided to cancel its contract with Coca-Cola until the company agrees to cooperate with an independent investigation in Colombia. NYU is now one of 12 universities boycotting the company.

Critics such as Doherty insist that a thorough, independent human rights investigation is the only way this issue will ever be settled.

Patrick Doherty

If the inquiry shows, for example, that the officials at Coca-Cola FEMSA are not culpable, well, then, certainly the company's position will be bolstered. If, on the other hand, the finding is that there is culpability on the part of company officials in Colombia, then it's our position that the company should move to settle the lawsuits that have been filed, to take steps to guarantee worker safety at the plants, and then move on, put this matter behind them.

Narration

Our trip to Colombia proved neither Coke's guilt nor Coke's innocence. But it did make clear that the victims of anti-union violence won't be satisfied until the Coca-Cola Company agrees to a thorough, independent human rights investigation.

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