Court Ruling Stirs Controversy Over Colombia’s ‘Para-Economy’

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A recent ruling by Colombia’s Justice and Peace Court that mentioned Postobón called for employees of the iconic soft drink company to be investigated for possible past collaboration with a paramilitary group but did not explicitly implicate the company itself, court documents show.

Several media outlets, including InSight Crime, initially reported that the July 11 ruling asked Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office to provide details on the state of investigations into the alleged financing of paramilitaries by Postobón.

VerdadAbierta has since pointed out, and InSight Crime has confirmed, that the ruling does not clearly implicate the company, although a dissenting judge did write that it “insinuated that Postobón could have contributed money to the illegal group.”

One of the last resolutions, appearing on the final page of the 522-page ruling, is to: “Exhort the Attorney General of the Nation to conduct an investigation related to the citations consigned in this ruling that presumably implicate employees of the Postobón company.”

The verdict sentenced Javier Antonio Quintero Coronel, alias “Pica Pica,” to eight years in prison for crimes committed during his militancy with the Héctor Julio Peinado Becerra (HJPB) paramilitary bloc. The HJPB was part of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), a counter-insurgency heavily involved in organized crime that terrorized large parts of Colombia in the 1990s and 2000s.

The ruling contains testimony given in October 2008 by Armando Madriaga Picón — a former member of the HJPB — detailing his interactions with an unnamed Postobón distributor.

“Every month the Postobón distributor gave me 15 boxes of soda that I later sold to a warehouse,” Madriaga said. “They ordered the delivery truck to leave them aside, and the warehouse paid me 150,000 pesos (approximately $80 at the time) monthly for these beverages.

“This was ordered by Postobón’s manager during 1999 or 2000. Some of the payments were voluntary, others obligatory.”

Postobón has rejected claims of past links to paramilitary organizations, saying it has always conducted business legally and upheld a strict code of conduct based on strong values and principles.

In his partial dissent (pdf) — he signed the ruling but made not of his objection to several of its findings — Judge Eduardo Castellanos Roso objected on constitutional grounds to the court’s finding that private companies alleged to have had relations with the paramilitaries should be held responsible as “intellectual authors” of the HJPB Front’s crimes.  

Castellanos Roso characterized Madriaga Picón’s account as “ambiguous, incomplete and imprecise” and said he objected that the ruling “ventures to mention Postobón as a collaborator of the illegal group and order the investigation of its workers, which appears to me a frivolous claim that is offensive to the moral heritage and the good name of a company.”

According to La Silla Vacia, several other former paramilitary members also accused Postobón of making payments to various AUC fronts, including annual payments of 10 million pesos (approximately $4,000 at the time) between 2001 and 2004 for each department along the Caribbean coast. Those making such claims include top AUC commander Salvatore Mancuso.

SEE ALSO: AUC News and Profile

The tribunal’s ruling found Quintero Coronel guilty, while exercising militancy in the HJPB in Norte de Santander and Sur de Cesar, of a long list of crimes that illustrate the paramilitary reign of terror: aggravated conspiracy, homicide, simple and aggravated kidnapping, kidnap for ransom, acts of terrorism, threats, forced displacement, torture, battlefield looting, personal injury, forced disappearance, destruction and appropriation of property and aggravated possession of false public documents.

Under the terms of the agreement which led to paramilitary demobilization, the ruling commuted Quintero Coronel’s 40-year sentence to eight years.       

Established in 1904, Postobón is ubiquitous throughout Colombia, and is the country’s largest beverage company and one of the largest in South America. Over the past several years other illustrious brands have fallen under suspicion of colluding with the AUC, including Chiquita BananasNestlé and Coca Cola.

InSight Crime Analysis

Since the AUC finished demobilizing in 2006, a number of scandals have surfaced regarding collusion between the officials, the private sector and the paramilitaries. Most prevalent among these is the “para-politics” scandal, which uncovered evidence of the paramilitaries’ links to and collusion with hundreds of top political and military figures in Colombia. Indeed, the Quintero Coronel ruling acknowledges in detail the paramilitary front’s collaborations with both military and political officers in its area of influence.

However, investigations into the “para-economy” have been few and far between despite the plethora of testimonies about ties between the AUC and the business sector, including claims businesses paid the paramilitaries to threaten and murder troublesome unionists and workers.

What investigations there have been have often stumbled over the murky issue of whether payments were voluntary or obligatory and whether the companies received anything in return. And when large companies have been singled out, most have been international firms rather than big Colombian businesses.

The apparent disagreement among judges about whether or not to even mention Postobón in the Quintero Coronel verdict is an indication of open wounds in the Colombian psyche that the paramilitary demobilization process has failed to heal.

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