By JUAN FORERO
LA LOMA, Colombia — In March 2001, during what union members describe as a labor dispute, two union leaders were pulled off a company bus after it left the coal mining compound here and were shot dead by paramilitary gunmen. Six months later another union leader was also assassinated.
For Colombia, such killings are routine; nearly 90 percent of union leaders reported killed worldwide die here. Few of the murders are ever resolved.
But the company involved, Drummond, is American, and last year an American labor rights group filed suit in a United States district court charging that the killers "were acting as employees or agents" of the company.
Drummond, based in Birmingham, Ala., denies any involvement. "We're not disputing the plaintiffs' claim that it was paramilitary terrorists," said William Jeffress, a Washington lawyer representing the company. "But we do dispute the outrageous accusations that these people were working with Drummond."
The case is one of a growing number of lawsuits that are stirring a fierce debate over whether American companies should be liable — in American courts — for rights abuses committed on or near their foreign installations.
The outcome could have important implications not only for Drummond, a 68-year-old, family-owned company, but also for several dozen American multinationals being sued under a formerly obscure law, the Alien Tort Claims Act, which was once used to combat piracy.
Today the 214-year-old statute is being used to wield lawsuits for alleged complicity in human rights abuses against some of the best known names in American business: ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Del Monte, Citigroup and Bank of America.
Five of the companies being sued operate here in Colombia, including two bottlers affiliated with Coca-Cola that have been accused by the same labor group of using paramilitary groups to kill union leaders.
The companies deny the charges and are fighting them in court.
The Bush administration has come to the defense of some companies, particularly in the energy sector, and spoken out forcefully against the lawsuits, arguing that they interfere with foreign policy and open multinational companies to frivolous or irrelevant grievances.
In May the Justice Department submitted a strongly worded brief in favor of the oil company Unocal, which is challenging a suit filed in 1996 in the federal Court of Appeals in San Francisco accusing it of using slave labor in Myanmar, formerly Burma. The administration argued that the alien tort law had been "commandeered" to allow cases that had "no connection whatsoever with the United States."
Last year the State Department similarly asked a court to dismiss a suit against ExxonMobil in Indonesia, saying it could hurt the fight against terrorism. Washington also raised concerns over a suit against the Rio Tinto mine in Papua New Guinea, and the case was dismissed.
Human rights groups called the Unocal brief a "frontal assault" on the use of the law and contend that the concerns are a smokescreen to protect companies with ties to the Bush administration, particularly in the energy industry. They argue that the suits provide a measure of accountability for corporations that have profited from ties with repressive governments or illegal groups. In many of these countries, they add, suits filed in American courts are the only avenue for justice.
"You have to go look for help in the United States, to file a suit, because you cannot do that here," said a relative of one of the union leaders killed here, who asked not to be identified for fear of being harmed. "Here, how could we ever win?"
In all, 26 suits have been filed in the past decade, many with the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund as lead counsel. Half have been dismissed; the others face obstacles as plaintiffs begin the arduous process of proving links between company policy and abuses.
Terry Collingsworth, director of the rights fund, said the purpose of the suits is not to win damages, but to change business practices. "We aren't doing this to make those victims millionaires," he said in an interview in Washington. "We want to see those companies change."
Drummond is no stranger to violence in Colombia. Leftist rebels have bombed company trains that transport coal from the Pribbenow mine to the coast on 40 occasions in the eight years the company has operated here. Drummond, like other energy companies, pays the government to provide protection; several hundred soldiers are stationed inside company installations.
Even as Drummond has been embroiled in the lawsuit, it has tried to maintain a good image. The company has spent $4.5 million on social programs and for projects like paving roads and upgrading schools. Negotiations over contracts have been peaceful, and wages for many of the company's 1,800 workers — 1,200 of them in unions — can be five times the national minimum wage.
"We want to be seen as good neighbors," said Augusto Jiménez, president of Drummond operations here.
The company has largely shifted its operations from Alabama to this stiflingly hot region, attracted by huge deposits of high-quality coal and low labor costs. It has invested $1 billion, and with two more mines set to open within five years, it is positioning itself to double its output and greatly increase its exports to Europe and the United States.
But in interviews here, union officials said some of that success stemmed from what they alleged is an association with paramilitary gunmen, who in 39 years of conflict in Colombia have fought leftist rebels and killed hundreds of union leaders.
The lawsuit charges that Drummond intimidated the union by permitting "known paramilitaries to freely enter their mining facilities" and by allowing pamphlets to be passed out accusing labor leaders of being part of a "guerrilla union."
Union leaders repeated the allegations in interviews, and company officials denied the assertions.
The suit contends that the union was left rudderless, to Drummond's benefit, after Valmore Locarno, the president of the local, and Víctor Orcasita, the vice president, were killed. Mr. Locarno's successor, Gustavo Soler, was killed half a year later. Since then, at least one union leader escaped assassination, and others have fled the country.
Union leaders, who say they still fear for their lives, have garnered the support of the local miners' union in Alabama, which says 2,000 miners have been laid off there since the 1980's as Drummond's interest in Colombia has grown.
"I could end up like Gustavo Soler," said Humberto Suárez, now vice president of the union here. "You have to keep your head down."
Drummond's president in Colombia, Mr. Jiménez, and other officials strongly denied the charges, and said that the union has had good relations with management. "I will just say the complaint is full of lies," said Mr. Jeffress, the company's lawyer, "and if we have to try the case, we will prove it."