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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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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.

 
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