COLOMBIA: Drummond Union: Govt Muffles Key Witness

The union activists suing U.S. coal company Drummond Co. Inc. in Alabama in the 2001 murders of three labor leaders say deliberate foot-dragging by Colombian authorities is preventing the jury from hearing their star witness.

"The strategy of these people is to delay the process so the trial ends without this evidence being presented," said Francisco Ramirez, a union official working with the plaintiffs. "They're giving us the runaround."

Concerned by the delay, 12 Democrats in the U.S. Congress wrote Colombia's vice president last week asking him to intercede.

There is also worry over the safety of the witness, Rafael Garcia, who is in a maximum-security Bogota prison.

The Democrat who chairs a House subcommittee on international human rights, Rep. William Delahunt, wrote President Alvaro Uribe last month asking he guarantee protection for Garcia.

Garcia says he witnessed Drummond's top Colombian executive hand over "a briefcase full of cash" to an illegal right-wing militia to have two of the three union leaders slain. The executive, Augusto Jimenez, vehemently denies the accusation and is suing Garcia for libel.

The request for a deposition of Garcia, at which lawyers for the plaintiffs and defense would be present, was included in three letters the U.S. Embassy sent the Foreign Ministry on May 18 related to the Drummond case.

The judge empowered to order the deposition, Jaime Chavarro, sent the documents to the Inspector General's office for vetting. One of the letters - not the one requesting the deposition - was determined to be poorly translated and on July 6 the embassy was asked for a new translation, according to Pilar Ordonez, a Foreign Ministry official.

The Inspector General's office is still awaiting the translation, said a spokeswoman, Regina Matta. Contacted by the AP, Chavarro refused to answer questions about the case.

The plaintiffs rested Monday in the Birmingham, Ala., court case, which is being tried under a law that allows U.S. corporations to be sued for their conduct abroad. However, the presiding judge, Karon Bowdre, has said she'll call a recess if the Garcia deposition can be obtained, according to the plaintiffs.

"We have until the end of the week to hear something from the Colombian government, and I'm getting the distinct impression that they don't want this to happen," said Daniel Kovalik, an attorney for the United Steelworkers union.

Garcia's testimony against key Uribe allies has helped put several congressmen in jail and exposed alleged close ties between the murderous right-wing militias and Colombia's ruling elite.

The former technology chief of Colombia's domestic security agency has pleaded guilty to charges including money laundering and erasing the records of wanted drug traffickers. He claims to have engineered a massive vote fraud in 2002 that favored Uribe and congressional candidates also supported by the paramilitaries.

Garcia's former boss, Jorge Noguera, was a regional Uribe campaign boss that year and Uribe later named him chief of the DAS domestic security agency. Now in jail on criminal conspiracy charges, Noguera is the highest-ranking Uribe administration official to be embroiled in the so-called "para-politico scandal."

According to Kovalik, Vice President Francisco Santos told him in a May 24 meeting in Washington, D.C., that he would help expedite the request for a Garcia deposition. A spokeswoman for Santos told the AP on Monday that Colombia's vice president "never made any promise" in the matter.

Witnesses for the plaintiffs say Drummond regularly paid the paramilitaries, provided them with sport utility vehicles and motorcycles, fed them and let them gas up at its coal mine in northeastern Colombia.

Drummond knew exactly what it was getting into when it decided to mine coal in one of Colombia's most conflictive regions, Garcia told the AP. Leftist rebels had plagued surrounding Cesar state with a relentless kidnapping and extortion campaign. So Drummond officials knew when they opened the La Loma mine in the early 1990s that they had a choice, said Garcia, either pay the guerrillas or the paramilitaries.

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