In early August 2006, while driving on the highway that links the northern Colombian cities of Bucaramanga and Santa Marta, a uniformed officer with a sidearm signaled for us to pull over to the side of the road. The officer was speaking into a walkie-talkie as he approached our vehicle and I noticed the words “private security” emblazoned on his uniform and a name badge hanging from his breast pocket identifying him as an employee of the Drummond Company. My Colombian driver and I had just passed the entrance to Alabama-based Drummond’s open-pit coalmine near the town of La Loma in the department of César. The guard said he had orders to detain us until the mine’s chief of security arrived on the scene. Ten minutes later, Drummond’s security chief pulled up with a truckload of Colombian soldiers to question us about our activities in the region. It was then that it hit me; we had just been detained and interrogated on a public Colombian highway by the private armed security force of a U.S. mining company.
In the late 1980s, Drummond took advantage of the deregulation that was occurring under neoliberal, or “free market,” globalization by purchasing the open-pit coalmine near La Loma as well as a Caribbean port from which to ship its coal to the United States and other countries. In the ensuing years, the company boosted the Pribbenow Mine’s coal production to more than 20 million tons annually, making it one of the largest coalmining operations in the world and the most significant contributor to Drummond’s $1.7 billion in annual revenues.
The mining of cheaper Colombian coal—partly due to low wages and favorable concession terms from the Colombian government—has allowed Drummond to close five mines in Alabama and lay-off 1,700 higher paid U.S. miners. The payroll savings for the company have been substantial as Alabama mineworkers that earned $18 per hour have been made redundant and replaced with Colombian miners that are paid an hourly wage of only $2.45. These payroll savings alone have boosted Drummond’s profits by more than quarter of a million dollars annually—and this doesn’t include the additional savings from no longer having to provide expensive health insurance and other benefits to U.S. workers.
However, by choosing to do business in Colombia, the company has become enmeshed in the country’s decades-long civil conflict being waged between leftist guerrilla groups and the U.S.-backed Colombian military and its paramilitary allies. In March 2001, a right-wing paramilitary death squad stopped a company bus carrying workers to Drummond’s Pribbenow Mine. The gunmen pulled Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Victor Hugo Orcasita off the bus and executed them. The victims were the president and vice-president of the local chapter of the Colombian union Sintramienergetica, which represents the mine’s workers. Drummond had recently refused a request by the two union leaders—who were engaged in contract negotiations with the company at the time—that they be allowed to sleep at the mine due to paramilitary threats. Seven months later, the union local’s new president, Gustavo Soler Mora, was also taken from a company bus and killed by paramilitaries.
In 2002, a suit was filed in U.S. Federal Court on behalf of Sintramienergetica claiming that the company had “aided and abetted” the paramilitary perpetrators of the murders. While Drummond denies the allegations, a sworn statement by former Colombian intelligence officer Rafael García supports the union’s claims. In his statement, García says he was at a meeting where Augusto Jiménez, president of Drummond’s Colombian operations, handed over a briefcase containing $200,000 in cash to be delivered to Colombian paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo. García stated, “That money was to be delivered to … Tovar Pupo to assassinate specific labor leaders at Drummond.” The former intelligence officer then identified the targets as two of the three union leaders killed in 2001.
According to both Sintramienergetica officials and local residents, paramilitaries continue to operate in the vicinity of the Drummond mine despite the demobilization of more than 30,000 militia fighters over the past three years. As one resident stated, “The demobilization of the paramilitaries here hasn’t achieved anything. Everything is still the same.” These claims are supported by a report released in August by the Colombian NGO Indepaz stating that demobilized fighters have created at least 43 new paramilitary groups in 22 departments throughout the country. In June, the continuation of paramilitary activity directly affected Sintramienergetica when Alvaro Mercado, a member of the union’s executive committee, survived an assassination attempt made against him by two gunmen outside his home.
It is not only paramilitary gunmen, however, that pose a threat to the union. Drummond has worked to undermine the strength of the union at the Pribbenow Mine by turning to non-unionized contract workers who now represent almost 50 percent of the company’s Colombian workforce.
As the Pribbenow Mine has grown, so have social and health problems in the nearby town of La Loma. Over the years, Drummond has brought in more and more workers from other parts of Colombia with many of them living in La Loma’s growing number of cheap hotels during their seven day work stints and going home to their families for their three days off. Not surprisingly, this overwhelmingly male workforce has attracted increasing numbers of bars and prostitutes to this once quiet town. And as Miguel, a local resident who requested that only his first name be used for security reasons, ashamedly pointed out, “Some of the prostitutes are children.” Estivenson Avila, president of Sintramienergetica, echoes the concerns of local residents regarding child prostitution in La Loma and claims, “Drummond isn’t doing anything to help address this problem.”
Drummond has contributed to some infrastructure improvements in La Loma including paving the main street. However, the fact that it is the only paved road in town is not always evident due to the abundance of sand-colored dust that covers its entire length. The dust generated by the company’s giant 25,000-acre open-pit mine permeates everything in La Loma: roads, vehicles, homes, clothes and people. According to one local resident, “Many people here suffer from respiratory ailments due to the dust in the air.”
While Drummond officials both in Alabama and Colombia failed to respond to requests for an interview, the company’s website proudly states that the Pribbenow Mine has a positive impact on the local economy and that the company “contributes to social programs to improve the lives of its employees and neighbors by providing assistance to schools, hospitals, and churches in the communities around its existing operations.” But several local residents claim that the company’s social programs do not begin to offset the negative social and health consequences caused by its mining operations.
The constantly expanding open-pit coalmine is also proving harmful to the local environment, despite claims by Drummond that its operations are environmentally sound. At the entrance to the Pribbenow Mine is a large billboard that boldly declares, “We are committed to the preservation of the environment.” Another billboard displays beautiful color photos of wild animals and a warning that killing these creatures on company property is prohibited. But it is difficult to ignore the contradiction evident in the operator of one of the world’s largest open-pit coalmines portraying itself as environmentally-friendly and a protector of animals at the same time its ever-expanding operations are devouring every tree and plant that constitute the natural habitat of the local wildlife.
In recent years there has been increasing international pressure on Drummond to address the human rights issues related to the company’s Colombian operations. In the United States, community groups have organized from Boston to Los Angeles to increase public awareness of Drummond’s human rights record and to ensure that local power plants do not purchase coal from the company. Similar campaigns are under way in the eastern Canadian provinces that rely on imported Colombian coal for their electricity generation. Perhaps most troubling for Drummond though is the Danish government’s recent announcement that Denmark’s state power company would no longer purchase coal from the company until the U.S. court case has been settled.
The many problems arising from, and the growing opposition to, Drummond’s mining practices have not yet influenced the company’s business approach in Colombia. In fact, while Drummond is being forced to defend itself against human rights charges in U.S. Federal Court, the company continues to conduct business as usual in Colombia. More than 200 Colombian soldiers remain stationed at Drummond’s mining operations to protect the company’s interests. Right-wing paramilitaries continue to target union leaders representing the company’s workers. Local residents continue to suffer the negative social and health consequences of mining operations that earn Drummond tens of millions of dollars in profits annually. And the open-pit Pribbenow Mine continues to devastate the local environment. Meanwhile, an inquisitive U.S. journalist and his Colombian driver were detained and questioned on a public highway by armed members of a U.S. company’s private security force. Clearly, Drummond has exhibited little respect for the sovereignty of Colombia and its people.
This article was previously published by ZNet