Colombia Seeks Probe Into Beverage Giant’s Alleged Paramilitary Links

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A Colombian court is seeking to renew investigations into allegations the country’s iconic beverage company Postobón colluded with paramilitary death squads, refocusing attention on a dark chapter of Colombia’s recent history that remains largely unexplored — the “para-economy.” 

On July 11, the Justice and Peace Court, part of the Superior Tribunal of Bogotá, asked Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office to provide details on the state of investigations into the alleged financing of paramilitaries by Postobón in the 1990s, reported El Espectador.

The court’s request stems from a 434-page verdict sentencing 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 Colombia in the 1990s and 2000s.

Within the verdict is testimony given in October 2008 by Armando Madriaga Picón — a former local HJPB finance chief — that references payments made by Postobón to distribute beverages, according to Semana.

“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.”

Based in part on Madriaga’s testimony, the Superior Tribunal asked the Attorney General’s Office to report on the status of its investigations and if it has been able to determine whether Postobón’s payments to the AUC were made voluntarily.

Madriaga is not the first to implicate Postobón in the illicit financing of Colombia’s paramilitary groups, referred to locally as the “para-economy” scandal.

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.

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.

InSight Crime Analysis

Since the AUC finished demobilizing in 2006, a number of scandals have surfaced regarding collusion between the legal world 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.

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.

SEE ALSO: AUC News and Profile 

Beyond the renewed focus on the topic, however, what is notable about the latest news on these investiations is the target. Established in 1904, Postobón is ubiquitous throughout Colombia, and is the country’s largest beverage company and one of the largest in South America. It joins such illustrious brands as Chiquita BananasNestlé and Coca Cola on the list of companies that have fallen under suspicion of colluding with the AUC.

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