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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.
 
 
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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.”

However, Romero’s activities soon attracted unwanted attentions. In 1988, the Colombian judicial police abducted Romero and tortured him in a secret prison for a week, according to a legal statement submitted by the unionist. By the late nineties, Romero’s work at the union and social activism had attracted the attentions of the paramilitaries, and he started receiving death threats.

The relationship between Romero and CICOLAC was strained. In 1999, a bomb went off at the factory, injuring one person – Luciano Romero. The company CEO, Carlos Fajardo, accused Romero of planting the bomb. The implication – that Romero was working with guerrillas – did not go unnoticed. It was a slur the union heard time and again from the company management, and especially from Fajardo.

“When someone says we are guerrillas it is dangerous,” said Baron. “In this country saying these things publically is risky because you don’t know who is there, who is listening, who is talking.”

The smear persisted even after Romero’s death but was finally laid to rest by the judge in the trial of Romero’s killers, who dismissed attempts to link Romero to the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) as unfounded.

As well as the accusations the union worked with the guerrillas, Fajardo also hinted at his own connections to the paramilitaries. “To ingratiate himself with the union he would ring us up and warn us to be careful because we’re going to ‘see some things’” said Baron. Fajardo warned union members several times that Romero was on a death list, once saying he could protect the unionist as long as he remained at the company, according to witnesses.

The relationship between Romero and the company began to break down terminally in 2002, when Romero led taut negotiations over an expiring labor agreement. What should have been standard negotiations quickly descended into a crisis. “It was a very tense situation,” said Baron. “The company launched an attack to strip away all our social and economic rights.”

The union began to prepare for a strike. Within days, the paramilitaries began running night patrols and distributing threatening leaflets, and word reached the unionists that if they went on strike they would be killed. Rumors of a death list with Luciano Romero’s name on it began to circulate.

According to witnesses, notorious paramilitaries appeared at the factory when the union was holding protest meetings. Among them was Hughes Rodriguez Fuentes, also known as “Comandante Barbie.”

Rodriguez was a finance chief for the AUC’s Martierres War Front of Cesar – the paramilitary unit that Romero’s assassins belonged to. The authorities in both Colombia and the United States believe he was a trusted ally of Jorge 40, and one of the warlord’s principal money launderers and fund raisers. He was also one of CICOLAC’s milk suppliers, and, according to witnesses, a personal friend of Carlos Fajardo.

During the labor dispute, the CICOLAC management told Rodriguez and the other milk suppliers that the union’s labor demands would push down milk prices while a strike would lead to the closure of the plant.

Also among those CICOLAC milk suppliers was Hernando Molina Araujo, a future Governor of Cesar, whose term was cut short after he conspired with the AUC to assassinate a local university professor. Another was Gustavo Gnecco, member of an infamous family of local power brokers who moved easily between the worlds of legitimate business and the drug trade, politics and paramilitarism.

With tensions building and violence looking likely, the union cancelled the strike. Not long after, Romero was one of nine workers, six of them union leaders, fired by CICOLAC – illegally according to the union. Ten months later, the company fired 99% of the workforce, and sold CICOLAC to DPA – a company jointly owned by Nestle and New Zealand based Fonterra. The workforce for the renamed DPA-CICOLAC was forced to accept reduced terms, and for many of them, temporary contracts. According to Baron, ten years and two rounds of labor negotiations later, workers still earn less than they did in 2002.

Despite the end of the dispute and Romero’s sacking, the threats against the union continued. In 2004, he went into exile through a protection program. However, he returned to Valledupar in 2005. “I would imagine his return was influenced by the emptiness of not being with his family, of not seeing his wife and children,” said Baron. “Being away from your home country is a form of slow death.”

By September, Romero was preparing to denounce Nestle as witness at the Permanent Peoples Tribunal in Switzerland. He was also working on the complaint he had filed against the company for unfair dismissal, and organizing a protest to commemorate the second anniversary of the mass lay off of the CICOLAC workers.

Just days before the protest was scheduled to take place, Jose Ustariz Acuña and Jhonatan David Contrera received orders from their AUC commanders to abduct, interrogate and murder an ELN guerrilla pretending to be a taxi driver by the name of Luciano Romero.

Neither the union nor ECCHR accuse Nestle of ordering Romero’s murder. However, they insist the company is responsible for his death. “The paramilitaries punished us precisely because we made demands of the company,” said Edgar Paez, a member of the union’s national leadership. “They have a very close relationship that does not permit us to exercise our right to organize, to unionize.”

Responsibility not only lies with the CICOLAC management but also with the Nestle parent company, according to Claudia Mueller-Hoff from ECCHR. “They are culpable because of omission, they had a duty to act, they had a duty to protect,” she said. “This risky behavior of the subsidiary is something where the Nestle parent company should have intervened because it was brought to their attention on several occasions.”

Nestle is far from the first multinational to be linked to anti-union violence and paramilitarism in Colombia and there have been investigations into subsidiaries of Chiquita, Drummond and Coca Cola. Mueller-Hoff though, is hoping this case will be different as it has the potential to help define what a company’s obligations are in conflict zones. “Parent companies need to look into their impact worldwide even if it’s an impact that is generated through their subsidiaries,” she said.

Nestle firmly denied it shares responsibility for Romero’s death. In a written statement for AlterNet, the company said: “We have never used violence, nor have we associated with criminals. We have no responsibility whatsoever, directly or indirectly, neither by action nor omission for the murder of Luciano Romero.”

However, Nestle declined to comment on the relationship between the CICOLAC management, the milk suppliers and paramilitaries, or on the accusations of reckless slander against the management, and the events of the labor dispute. It also declined to comment on Salvatore Mancuso’s testimony that CICOLAC had funded the AUC.

Progress in the case has so far been hampered by legal wrangling. In early May, the five Nestle executives named in the complaint avoided the possibility of prosecution when the statute of limitations for the crime expired after the Swiss courts had argued over jurisdiction for a year. “It seems to be an attempt to avoid dealing with the important legal questions at stake,” said Mueller-Hoff. “The Swiss public prosecutor has even fallen behind our relatively modest expectations.”

However, the ECCHR, SINALTRAINAL and Romero’s family are still optimistic the second target of the complaint – Nestle as a company – can still be prosecuted. Under Swiss law, the statute of limitations only begins for a company when it ends the practices it is accused of. According to SINALTRAINAL, this has yet to happen.

While Jorge 40 and the AUC have now demobilized, paramilitary successor groups, often led by former mid-level commanders, continue to terrorize unionists working at Nestle today.

In 2011, Roberto Gonzalez became the 13th Nestle unionist to be murdered when he was shot in the back in Valledupar. In 2012, 23 SINALTRAINAL members who are current or former Nestle workers received death threats.

“Every time there is a labor dispute, there is a leap in paramilitarism,” said Paez. “The threats come, people are followed, there are some really difficult security situations.”

Some of the threats received last year directly referenced protests SINALTRAINAL had led against Nestle, including one promising to “exterminate” the union for their campaign at Nestlé’s Bugalagrande factory. The tone of the threats has changed little since the paramilitary heyday and recipients remain, as in one threat sent by neo-paramilitary group the Urabeños, “guerrilla sons of bitches disguised as unionists.”

Paez believes the links between paramilitarism and the landowning elite who supply DPA-CICOLAC with milk have also changed little. “DPA is still buying milk and they buy this milk from these men, who in some way have connections to paramilitarism,” he said.

While the struggle to hold corporations accountable for their role in Colombia’s dirty war continues, those on the front lines of that war have little doubt as to who it has benefited from the violence. “In Luciano’s case who won?” said Baron. “The state won because there is one man less in the struggle, the company won because they benefited directly and above all, the bosses won because they managed to show that with violence you can bring an end to unionism.”

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia.
 
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