Drummond denies link to armed group

BOGOTA -- Facing accusations that it has aided murderous right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia who killed three of its employees, Alabama-based coal company Drummond went on the counteroffensive to deny any links to the illegal groups. "Drummond does not negotiate with illegally armed groups. The company rejects all charges against the company and its employees," company lawyer Hugo Palacios said during a news conference at the firm's Bogotá office.

The news conference came as Drummond's lawyers in the United States prepare the company for a civil trial May 14 in Alabama concerning the death of the three union members in Colombia and a week after Chiquita Brands International settled with the Justice Department for paying paramilitaries -- designated by the State Department as a terrorist group -- $1.7 million over seven years. Chiquita will pay $25 million in fines and could face more criminal charges in Colombia.

Coca-Cola and two of its bottlers also face a civil suit for allegedly aiding Colombian paramilitaries who killed several of its union leaders in the mid-1990s.

"This is obviously part of the general political atmosphere we're all facing," said José Miguel Linares, vice president of corporate affairs in Colombia, of the cases against the U.S. companies. "Drummond's position is that we will not negotiate a deal with anyone. We are confident, and we have nothing to hide."

Drummond is one of the largest coal companies in Colombia; its production has risen from 10 million tons in 2000 to 24 million tons in 2005, reports the company's website. Coal is now Colombia's top export behind oil.

Drummond also operates in one of the country's most dangerous and politically charged environments along the northern Colombian coast. Left-wing guerrillas have attacked Drummond's coal train on many occasions and demand that the company -- as well as other local businesses -- pay a "tax" to help it fund its decades-old war against the government. The right-wing paramilitaries also demand a "tax" from local businesses for "cleaning" the area of guerrillas and suspected supporters.

Indeed, the paramilitaries' arrival in the late 1990s coincided with some of worst massacres in the country and precipitated the assassination of the three union members in 2001.

Union leaders and the slain unionists' widows sued Drummond in 2002 for aiding and abetting paramilitaries.

Earlier this year, Rafael García, a former systems engineer in the country's intelligence service known as DAS told plaintiffs' lawyers in a written statement that he attended a meeting that included Drummond Colombia President Augusto Jiménez and paramilitary commander, Rodrigo Tovar, in which Jiménez gave Tovar money to eliminate union leaders.

García is in jail in Colombia, sentenced to 24 years for erasing information on cases involving drug traffickers.

Drummond on Thursday refuted García's accusations, calling them false and saying the meeting described by the engineer never took place. They also moved to bar García's sworn testimony during the upcoming trial, but the judge ruled this week in favor of the plaintiffs.

But Drummond may have a hard time separating itself from the political scandal enveloping the region.

In recent months, several local and national politicians in the area where Drummond operates have been jailed and face charges of working with the right-wing groups.

The company's longtime director of operations in the area, Alfredo Araújo, is the cousin of jailed Sen. Alvaro Araújo Castro, who faces conspiracy and kidnapping charges and is one of the politicians who allegedly met with paramilitary leader Tovar to divvy up the region politically.

Araújo Castro's father, Alvaro Araújo Noguera, was also charged with kidnapping and has fled authorities.

Linares said the company had no evidence to support claims linking Araújo, an employee since 1989, to paramilitaries: "Araújo has the company's complete support."