Is the Colombian Government Conspiring with Drummond to Silence Francisco Ramírez?
Despite Increasing Threats, Uribe’s Police Cut Back Security Measures for the Unionist and Outspoken Critic of a U.S. Coal Company with Close Ties to the Administration
By Sean Donahue
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
October 18, 2006
Francisco Ramírez Cuellar is no stranger to death threats. The President of SINTRAMINERCOL, the union representing the workers of Colombia’s now privatized and disbanded state mining company, has had his office bombed and has survived numerous attempts on his life. In 2004, after Ramírez and his two young nieces barely escaped being shot by a gunman on a motorcycle, the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States ordered Minercol Ltd. and the Colombian government to provide the union leader with protection in the form of an armored car and two armed bodyguards.
But through his work exposing how multinational mining companies are exploiting workers and displacing communities, Ramírez has made himself some powerful enemies – foremost among them, Drummond Coal, the Alabama-based company that his union is suing in a U.S. court for conspiring with right-wing paramilitaries to murder and torture two labor organizers. Drummond has friends in high places. On October 5, the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) announced that it had determined that, despite a recent increase in threats and harassment, Ramírez was in a “low risk situation” and no longer needed the same level of protection. They took back his armored car and cancelled his guards’ radio service, leaving him vulnerable to attack.
Why is Francisco Ramírez a Threat to Drummond?
Drummond Coal has a sordid history in Colombia. Pui-Wing Tam and Mark Lifsher described some of the worst atrocities committed at the company’s La Loma mine in an October 6, 2003 article in the Wall Street Journal:
“One evening in March 2001, a bus carrying Valmore Locarno and Victor Orcasita home from work at a Drummond Co. coal mine in La Loma, Colombia, was stopped by members of a right-wing paramilitary group. The armed men boarded the bus as it stood on a paved road cutting across the hot, open plains, eyewitnesses say in interviews. The fighters called for the pair, leaders of a union at the mine, and accused them of “having a problem with Drummond,” eyewitnesses say. Then Messrs, Locarno, and Orcasita were hauled off the bus, which Drummond had chartered.
“Mr. Locarno, 38 years old, was shot immediately. Mr. Orcasita, 37, was found later by the side of the road, a bullet in his head and his teeth knocked out.
“Seven months later, their successor at the union, Gustavo Soler, 36, was pulled off a public bus by paramilitary members who sought him out by name, according to both the union and the company. Farmers found his corpse two days later. He had been shot twice in the head.
“No one has been arrested in the killings. A Colombian government spokesman says investigations have been delayed by the refusal of victims’ families and union members to talk, because of their fear of reprisal.”
The union members and the victims’ families had good reason to be afraid – according to Colombia’s Escuala Nacional Sindical, in the first eleven months of 2005, 55 Colombian trade unionists were murdered and 250 were threatened, tortured, harassed, kidnapped, disappeared or arbitrarily detained, making Colombia by far the most dangerous place in the world for labor organizers. According to the U.S./Labor Education in the Americas Project, in the past decade fewer than one percent of those responsible for killing union members have been prosecuted.
Union members continued to face threats and harassment during a strike this summer.
Knowing that they would never find justice in Colombia, the country’s two major mining unions, SINTRAMINERCOL and FUNTRAENERGETICA-SINTRAENERGETICA, decided to look for help beyond their borders. Working with the United Steel Workers and the International Labor Rights Fund, they filed suit against the company in the U.S. under the Alien Tort Claims Act. With that lawsuit working its way through the courts, the unions began reaching out to Drummond’s customers around the world. Ramírez played a key role in this campaign, both as a strategist and as an international spokesperson for the workers.
In September, the strategy paid off – the Danish government suspended all coal purchases from Drummond pending the resolution of the lawsuit.
In a related story, which Stephen Flannagan Jackson has been covering for The Narco News Bulletin, the Dutch government is currently investigating charges the Colombian government and Drummond conspired to frame a Dutch businessman on money laundering charges in order to allow the state oil company, Ecopetrol to strip the Dutch Company, Llanos Oil of its concessions and award them to Drummond.
Colombian labor and human rights advocates believe that this increased international scrutiny and pressure led Drummond to solicit the Colombian government’s help in silencing Francisco Ramírez. And thanks to a long-standing relationship with one of President Álvaro Uribe’s most trusted advisors, Drummond has access to the highest levels of government in Colombia.
Fabio Echeverri and the Terror State
Álvaro Uribe’s top advisor and former campaign manager, Fabio Echeverri Correa, served as one of Drummond’s chief representatives in Colombia for fifteen years.
His ties to Colombia’s far right go back even further.
Echeverri and Uribe both came from wealthy families in the department of Antioquia. They came of age at a time when the old cattle ranching aristocracy, with its nostalgic allegiances to pro-Franco movements, was beginning to merge with the new aristocracy of Medellin’s cocaine cartel. There was a natural symbiosis. Live cattle sales, being difficult to trace, were a natural mechanism for money laundering – one that is still being used widely today. And both had a common enemy in the form of Marxist guerillas who tried to extort “revolutionary taxes” from landowners and kidnapped wealthy Antioquians and held them for ransom. In the early 1980s, cocaine traffickers, cattle ranchers, military officers, and representatives of multinational companies came together to form, finance, and recruit a force to fight the guerillas by targeting their suspected supporter for assassination. The group – “Death to Kidnappers,” or MAS – was the forerunner of today’s rightwing paramilitaries, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Their list of targets quickly expanded to include union organizers, journalists, human rights workers, and anyone else who questioned the economic status quo or the conduct of the war against the guerillas.
Uribe rose from his position as Civil Air Administrator for the city of Medellin (a job where he was very useful to the city’s cocaine cartel) to become first a senator and then the governor of Antioquia. As governor, he worked to legitimize and legalize paramilitarism through a federal program called CONVIVIR, which armed “civilian self-defense groups.”
Echeverri became a business lobbyist, serving as head of Antioquia’s chapter of a national cattle ranchers’ association and working for the National Association of Industrialists. He too used his position to try to legitimize the paramilitaries. Forrest Hylton writes:
“As head of the Antioquia branch of the National Cattlemen’s Association (FEDEGAN), Fabio Echeverri Correa, recently Uribe’s campaign manager and currently his chief economic advisor, was a staunch defender of paramilitarism when it became a topic of national debate in 1986-87. When Echeverri Correa was President of the National Association of Industrialists (ANDI) in 1981, he advocated a sort of “amnesty” for capital accumulated illegally. His political alignment with narco-paramilitarism is unmistakeable.”
Now, as a top advisor to the President, Echeverri has a great deal of influence over the DAS, which is a division of the Office of the President.
This puts Echeverri in an excellent position to help his former bosses at Drummond.
DAS – The Fox Watching the Hen House
The DAS is charged with ensuring the safety of union organizers, journalists, jurists, and human rights activists who are receiving death threats – a measure the Colombian government has grudgingly acceded to in order to make it easier for the U.S. Congress to continue justifying sending military aid to Colombia. But the DAS is also the nation’s top intelligence agency, charged with rooting out subversion. Under an administration that views labor and human rights groups as subversive, that puts the agency at odds with the very people it is charged with protecting.
At a bare minimum, the DAS demonstrated extreme incompetence in reassessing Ramírez’ security situation. Their “security study” took less than ten minutes and ignored what SINTRAMINERCOL describes as a recent “increase in threats, tailings, harassments, spying on the union office and the house of Francisco Ramírez.”
But there is one piece of the story that doesn’t fit at all – the DAS doesn’t normally carry out these assessments on their own, Ramírez told Narco News; “security studies” are normally conducted by the Colombian National Police. Someone had to give the order for the DAS to step outside its usual boundaries. And it doesn’t take much of a cynic to conclude that the same person who gave that order also dictated what the outcome of the study should be.
Even more than the Colombian National Police, which have their own problems with corruption, the DAS is closely linked to the paramilitaries.
Last year, Rafael García, a former high ranking DAS official doing jail time for taking bribes to delete the agency’s files on paramilitary leaders and drug traffickers, blew the whistle on high level corruption in the agency. The scandal ended the career of his boss, Jorge Noguera.
In an excellent summary of the scandal, Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy, writes:
“García contends that Noguera maintained a close relationship with Rodrigo Tovar Pupo or ‘Jorge 40,’ the leader of the AUC paramilitaries’ powerful Northern Bloc who controlled (and probably still controls) much of the narcotics transshipment from the eastern half of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. García says that Noguera met several times with ‘Jorge 40’ to talk about local politics, including support for candidates in the 2003 municipal and gubernatorial elections, among them Magdalena department governor Trino Luna.
“On various occasions Jorge Noguera told me that Jorge 40 was very grateful for the collaboration that he had offered him,’ said García. A key point of contact between Noguera and ‘Jorge 40,’ according to García, was the paramilitary leader’s cousin, Álvaro Pupo.
“José Miguel Narváez, who as subdirector was Noguera’s second-in-command at the DAS, has told Colombian government investigators that Noguera’s relationships with paramilitaries went beyond ‘Jorge 40’ alone. Other paramilitaries who got help from the DAS included Luis Eduardo Cifuentes (‘El Águila’), the paramilitary chief in Cundinamarca (the department around Bogotá); Carlos Mario Jiménez or ‘Macaco’ of the powerful Central Bolivar Bloc; and Miguel Arroyave, who headed the ‘Centauro’” bloc in Bogotá and in the southern llanos (the savannahs of Meta, Casanare, Guaviare and Vichada) until his own men killed him in September 2004.”
Many of García’s charges were confirmed recently when Colombian officials seized “Jorge 40’s” laptop.
García also charged that DAS agents and officials provided paramilitaries with intelligence on union leaders and funneled paramilitary contributions to the Uribe campaign.
García is also now a key witness in the Alabama court case against Drummond. In May, he told United Steelworkers attorney Daniel Kovalik that he had seen Drummond executive Alfredo Jiminez give a paramilitary leader $200,000 in cash.
All of this suggests that the DAS’ decision to take back Francisco Ramírez’s car and cancel his guards’ radio service was more likely a result of foul play than a matter of sheer incompetence.
Pieces Still Missing
The exact nature of the relationship between Drummond, Echeverri, the paramilitaries, and the DAS have not yet been revealed. We may not know exactly who pressured the DAS to remove Francisco Ramírez’s protective measures and how they accomplished that goal until another whistleblower emerges.
But it’s clear that someone wants Francisco Ramírez dead.
A law enforcement agency doesn’t scale back its efforts to protect someone who is facing escalating credible death threats unless the agency is working with the people making those threats.
If anything happens to Francisco Ramírez, Drummond Coal and the Uribe administration will have a lot of questions to answer.
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