We flew into Bucaramanga, an industrial town in the hills of northeast Colombia. This is the home of the local chapter of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de Alimentos (National Syndication of Food Industry Workers) (SINALTRAINAL), the union that is suing Coca-Cola. Heading into town by taxi, we passed a sign in Spanish that translated into “Bucaramanga, City of Peace, City of Happiness” -- a strange motto for a city that has seen so much violence.
SINALTRAINAL is a left-wing union whose militancy has antagonized the management of Coke. In 2004, the union organized a hunger strike to protest local plant closings by Coca-Cola FEMSA, the largest bottler in Colombia. Union leaders here told us they live with constant death threats from right-wing paramilitaries. Two bodyguards accompany Efrain Guerrero, the local union president, wherever he goes, and he always carries a gun. Three of his relatives were gunned down in their home in April 2005.
Another union official, William Mendoza, told us that a paramilitary thug threatened to kidnap and kill his 4-year-old daughter. He believes he’s being targeted because in 2003, he uncovered financial collusion between plant managers and the paramilitary forces.
Union membership has declined precipitously under the constant pressure, but union activists say they are not going away. “They may kill us,” says Mendoza, “but we have a saying -- it is worth more to live for something than to die for nothing.”