Suit claims Ala. coal firm funded Colombian terror

Associated Press

By Bob Johnson

Relatives of dozens of slain Colombians sued an Alabama-based coal company in federal court Thursday, accusing it of making millions of dollars in payments to a paramilitary group that sowed terror in the South American country.

The suit said 67 victims of the The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, also known as AUC, included unionists, farmworkers and others. It claimed the rightwing group received payments from operatives for Drummond allegedly to assassinate top union leaders and protect the company's large coal mine and railroad in Colombia.

The lawsuit is much broader than one filed in March by the children of three slain Colombian union leaders against Drummond Co. Inc.

A similar lawsuit ended in 2007 with a verdict for Drummond, which has repeatedly denied any connection with the Colombian violence. The verdict was upheld by a federal appeals court in December.

The plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit include hundreds of parents, children and siblings of people allegedly killed by AUC, mostly in Colombia's Cesar and Magdalena provinces.

A spokesman for Drummond, Bruce Windham, was out of its Birmingham headquarters Thursday and not immediately available to return a call for comment.

Attorney Terry Collingsworth, who represents the plaintiffs, said the latest lawsuit was filed because of new information alleging that Drummond made payments to the paramilitary group, which he said "terrorized people up and down Drummond's railroad corridor."

The suit lists both the victims and their relatives with pseudonyms such as "Jane Doe" or "Peter Doe," followed by a sequence of numbers. A motion is pending seeking to allow the suit to go forward while keeping the plaintiffs anonymous.

"Many of the AUC leaders are now speaking freely about their relationship with the elites of the Colombian business community, and their direct collaboration with the Colombian military," the suit said.

The suit, like the earlier ones, was filed under the more than 200-year-old Alien Torts Claims Act, which allows foreigners to file suit in U.S. courts for alleged wrongdoing overseas.

The initial suit was the first filed against a U.S. corporation under the law to ever make it to trial.

The latest suit seeks unspecified financial damages and other relief. It says the political situation in Colombia prevents the plaintiffs from addressing their complaints in their home country.

"Any efforts by plantiffs to seek redress would be futile because those seeking to challenge official or paramilitary violence, including prosecutors and human rights activists, are at great risk of retaliation," the lawsuit says.

The suit names as defendants Augusto Jimenez, the CEO of Drummond's Colombian subsidiary; Alfredo Araujo, Drummond's community relations manager in Colombia; and James Atkins, director of security for Drummond in the South American country.

The suit alleges that Araujo is a close friend of a Colombian paramilitary leader, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, also known as "Jorge 40."

The suit claims that from 1999 to 2006, Drummond paid millions of dollars to "Jorge 40" and a wing of the AUC called the Juan Andres Alvarez Front. It alleges that the payments were negotiated by Drummond through Araujo and Atkins and approved by Jimenez.

According to the suit, the victims were killed in such places as a kiosk, on a sports field, in a shop — and some are said to have "disappeared," apparently killed and their bodies never found.

The suit alleges Drummond knew that "because of the lawless environment created by the civil conflict in Colombia, the paramilitaries acting as their agents, could murder trade unionists employed at their mines — including Locarno, Orcasta and Soler — with impunity."

Associated Press Writer Kendal Weaver contributed to this report from Montgomery, Ala.