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Is Nestle Involved in Murder Of Colombian Union Leader?

Luciano Romero's homicide is now taking center stage in a legal battle to define corporate responsibility in conflict zones.

On the night of September 5, 2005, two paramilitaries from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia hijacked Luciano Romero’s taxi as he drove through his home city of Valledupar. They took him to a nearby farm, where they tortured then murdered him. His body was found the next day, dumped behind an army garrison, with a handkerchief stuffed in his mouth and 50 stab wounds; one more victim in Colombia’s dirty war against trade unionists.

However, seven years on, and while Romero may only be one of approximately 3,000 victims of that war, his murder is now taking center stage in a legal battle to define corporate responsibility in conflict zones. This battle is taking place not in Colombia, but in Switzerland, home to one of the world’s biggest multi-nationals and Romero’s former employers – Nestle.

The struggle to hold Nestle accountable for its alleged role in Romero’s death began with the 2007 conviction of Romero’s killers – itself a rarity in a country with a 95% impunity rate in unionist murders. When passing sentence, Judge José Nirio Sánchez ordered an investigation into the intellectual authors of the crime that would scrutinize the role of not only the paramilitary warlord who commanded Romero’s killers, but also the management at the Nestle subsidiary where Romero worked.

While that investigation has yet to show any sign of progress, the case has been taken up by Romero’s union, SINALTRAINAL, and human rights group the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). In 2012, the organizations filed a criminal complaint in Switzerland demanding the prosecution of Nestle for Romero’s murder.

The powdered milk factory where Romero worked, CICOLAC, was Nestlé’s first investment in Colombia, when it opened the site in 1944. The multi-national sold CICOLAC in 1982, only to buy it back again in 1998. At the time of Nestlé’s return to Valledupar, the northern state of Cesar, where the city is located, was under the control of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary army.

According to the testimonies of demobilized AUC leaders, the paramilitaries had been invited into the region by members of the region’s economic elite, who were tired of the campaign of constant harassment, kidnappings and extortion waged by leftist guerilla groups. Cesar became a fiefdom of Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias ‘Jorge 40,’ a member of Valledupar high society whose paramilitary empire stretched across north east Colombia.  

The Cesar paramilitary block commanded by Jorge 40 was financed by the region’s cattle ranchers, dairy farmers and other land owners and economic interests. Among them was CICOLAC – according to AUC Leader Salvatore Mancuso, who named the company in the hearings that followed the demobilization of the AUC in 2006.

The paramilitaries in Cesar employed their favored terror tactics in the battle against the guerrillas, and launched a dirty war against anyone they deemed a guerrilla “collaborator” – community leaders, leftist activists, educators and, above all, unionists.

In 1993, Harry Triana became the first CICOLAC unionist in Valledupar to fall victim to that war when killed in front of his children and work colleagues. The next came in 1996, when José Manuel Becerra Pacheco was beheaded and Alejandro Matias Vanstrahlen was shot. The following year, Toribio De La Hoz was shot while celebrating his 42nd birthday in his home and in 1999 Victor Mieles and his wife were abducted in front of one of Nestlé’s Cesar factories and later murdered.

Despite the violence, Luciano Romero emerged as a leading figure in the local union movement. “He was a person who had really absorbed the union’s values,” said Alfonso Baron, a friend of Romero’s and a local SINALTRAINAL leader who has worked at CICOLAC since 1986. “He was a good friend, a good companion, he showed solidarity and fraternity, he was respectful, a hard worker and he looked out for others.”

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