Colombia’s Paramilitary-Coal Nexus: Drummond, Glencore Face New Accusations

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A Dutch NGO has compiled a damning report on the alleged collusion of multinational mining companies Drummond and Glencore with paramilitaries who carried out mass murder in Colombia, offering an insight into the paramilitary-business nexus that still persists in much of the country.

The report by Christian peace campaigners PAX, “The Dark Side of Coal,” (pdf) brings together the testimonies of demobilized paramilitaries, former company employees and conflict victims who lived through the era of paramilitary dominance in the northern province of Cesar between 1996 and 2006.

Together, the testimonies paint a picture of a close relationship between the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and US company Drummond, as well as Prodeco, a subsidiary of Swiss-owned Glencore. The report alleges that the two companies provided financial and logistical support to the paramilitaries.

The witnesses claim the ties between the AUC and the mining companies began as a response to an escalating campaign of kidnappings and attacks against the companies by the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). With the companies desperate to put a stop to the harassment, the Colombian military facilitated a deal in 1995 for Drummond to funnel money to paramilitary groups in exchange for “security,” the report states. The companies later began dealing directly with the AUC, according to multiple witnesses.

Former AUC leaders interviewed by PAX said that the companies not only supported existing paramilitary operations, but were instrumental in financing the AUC’s expansion in the region.

Over the next decade, the paramilitaries fought the guerrillas back using the terror tactics that would become their calling card across Colombia, and the AUC bloc allegedly supported by the mining companies left a trail of 2,600 victims of selective killings, 500 victims of massacres, and 240 victims of enforced disappearances, according to PAX’s estimates.

Part of the cooperation between Drummond, Prodeco and the AUC involved the companies feeding intelligence to the AUC and the military on “subversives” and unionists within their workforce, who were often then targeted for threats and assassination, said one former paramilitary who claimed to be directly involved in these operations.

The report also presents evidence the AUC, which was responsible for the displacement of an estimated 59,000 people in Cesar, forced local farmers and families from their lands for the benefit of the coal companies.

“All this is done because of the coal-rich land: it brings in a lot of money, and that explains this [forced] displacement,” one former paramilitary told PAX investigators.

While there is no suggestion that the companies instigated the displacements, they did later purchase land left behind by the fleeing civilians. In Colombia, the sale of land abandoned by people escaping the conflict is illegal.

The report highlights two examples of what PAX claims were illegal land grabs in the region, carried out by the coal companies. In the first, Drummond obtained numerous plots of land in the community of Mechoacan, 21 of which were declared to be illegal purchases in 2012. The company has taken aggressive legal action to hold on to the plots, including filing a complaint against the attorney general for “abuse of power” and “obstructing the course of justice,” and bringing a civil suit against the families who claim the land. 

Prodeco, meanwhile, stands accused of purchasing land in the community of El Prado, which had been occupied by paramilitary front men after the original owners were displaced in 2002. In 2011, Colombian land registry body the Institute for Rural Development (INCODER) was found guilty of selling stolen land to Prodeco and ordered to return it to its owners. INCODER had previously tried to remove these owners from lists of the displaced, according to PAX. Prodeco has said that it was never interested in buying the land, but that then-President Alvaro Uribe had told them to buy it for political reasons, and that the company never technically owned the land as INCODER had failed to meet the terms of the deal, the report states.

Both Drummond and Prodeco’s parent company Glencore have issued statements disputing the claims made in PAX’s report and calling the paramilitary testimony unreliable and contradictory. Drummond pointed out that one of PAX’s key witnesses testified to the Attorney General’s Office under oath that the company had not worked with the AUC, and accused a lawyer in the US case of paying some of the witnesses hefty sums of money.

The Drummond statement said the report “could be used for a good novel or maybe a fiction movie but it in no way represents the truth about Drummond in Colombia or the coal industry in the country.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The paramilitary expansion of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which left a trail of death and displacement in its wake, was intricately linked with certain business sectors — a nexus known in Colombia as the “para-economy.”

The Drummond case has become one of the most notorious examples. The company has been subject to an investigation into the murders of three unionists, and accused by both the paramilitary and the business sides of the para-economy axis of financing and colluding with the AUC. According to testimony given in a US court by one former AUC chief, local paramilitaries murdered civilians who did not want to sell their land to the company.

No criminal case against Drummond or Prodeco has yet made it through the courts, but the ongoing land restitution cases against the companies mean their legal troubles are likely not over yet.

The author of the PAX report, Marianne Moor, told InSight Crime that none of the displacement victims have been compensated in any way. For many of them, their former lands are now not fit for the families to return, she said.

According to Moor, Colombia’s legal framework — which bans the purchase of land from which people have been displaced — is sufficient in this area, but the law is stymied by state corruption, and poor implementation.

The victims in the El Prado case have also faced another new, but familiar, threat. Several of the claimants and their lawyer have received death threats from what the local Human Rights Ombudsman says is a new armed group backed by local landowners and politicians, according to PAX. They have also received written threats signed with the names of Colombia’s dominant criminal groups, the Urabeños and the Rastrojos. In several of these messages, the groups say that they are acting in the interests of the mining companies, PAX states.

Drummond and Glencore are not alone in facing damning allegations in the aftermath of the para-economy bubble. Banana company Chiquita has faced various lawsuits over its alleged paramilitary collusion and in 2007 paid a $1.7 million fine for financing the AUC — though it says its payments to the group were extorted. It has also been accused of continuing ties to companies involved in displacement and land theft. Nestle has faced legal action in Switzerland, with a suit demanding that the company face murder charges for unionist killings in Colombia, while unions representing the company’s workers continue to receive threats and see their members killed. Coca Cola has also faced legal action, and calls for a boycott of its products, due to its alleged links with Colombian paramilitary groups.

However, Drummond and Glencore are also not alone in having escaped any serious punishment or criminal charges. The lawsuit against Chiquita was recently dismissed, with the judges ruling that US courts could not be used to pursue claims over events that happened abroad. In the Nestle case, the opportunity to lay criminal charges against company directors was lost because the statute of limitations expired after the Swiss courts spent a year debating what region of the country had jurisdiction over the case. Coca Cola, too, has seen little progress in the cases relating to its actions in Colombia.

The raft of testimony from demobilized paramilitaries incriminating businesses across the country has failed to result in a corresponding raft of prosecutions. The AUC has demobilized and many of its political allies are in prison, but the investigations into the para-economy have barely begun.

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