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Colombian Coca-Cola Workers Battle Corporate Death Squads

by Tom Burke |
November 1, 2003
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This is a photo of Coca-Cola workers and union activists marching.
Colombian Coca-Cola workers and U.S. union activists march in Bogotá. (Fight Back! News Tom Burke)

Tom Burke of Fight Back! interviewed Luis Adolfo, a leader of Colombian Coca-Cola workers. The heroism of Coca-Cola workers who are standing up to company-hired death squads has inspired support from workers across Colombia, and around the world.


Fight Back!: What are the working conditions for trade unionists at the Coca-Cola Company plant in Colombia? 

Luis Adolfo Cardona: Coca-Cola in Colombia is clearly implementing a campaign of throwing the union out. As part of this attack, Coke violates the labor union contracts, dismisses their workers, while paramilitary bands promote the assassination of union militants who are then forced to renounce their union affiliation, their membership with the union.

Fight Back!: Who is responsible for the assassinations of the Colombian union activists in the Coca-Cola bottling plants?

Luis Adolfo Cardona: The paramilitary groups are directly responsible for the assassinations, but Coca-Cola is permitting the paramilitary death squads access to the bottling plants.

Fight Back!: The U.S. is spending more than $2 billion on a war plan known as Plan Colombia. How is it affecting Colombia and the workers movement?

Luis Adolfo Cardona: Plan Colombia impacts the workers significantly. The Colombian people and the country are losing their national sovereignty. The Colombian government works under what is imposed on it by the U.S. government. Under U.S. political, economic and military advisors, the Colombian government wages a war of extermination against every form of resistance to the plan of colonization or privatization, against any labor reforms or social progress. Fascist politicians plot against the workers, making things worse, with the justification of combating terrorism or drugs. 

Fight Back!: With the new president, Uribe, how has the situation for trade unionists changed?

Luis Adolfo Cardona: The new president, Uribe, is implementing more paramilitary groups. These groups work without scruples for the companies in stomping out the rights of the workers, especially at Coca-Cola. The new president in Colombia has changed the practice of the law and introduced new laws that divide the country into zones for pacification by armed forces and armed gangs. The police raid our union houses, supposedly looking for literature and weapons of the subversives or terrorist plans. Oftentimes the police place weapons or subversive literature and blame all those trade unionists present saying they are subversives and terrorists. They plan this with the company, Coca-Cola, and then announce the results in public. 

Fight Back!: Explain your work situation when you worked at the Coca-Cola plant.

Luis Adolfo Cardona: My situation as a worker at the Coca-Cola bottling plant was terrible and affected my family and fellow workers. We workers were trying to claim our minimum rights, but we were mistreated - ultimately mistreated by the directors of the multinational Coca-Cola company. We were victims of the management’s amnesia. The company said that if we followed up with our legal claims and bothering of Coca-Cola, then the management would talk with the boss of the paramilitary death squads. The manager said he already talked with them and they will do what they want and will drive out all the union workers. Also, the management dismissed our fellow workers - only one form of injustice. They assassinated five in Uraba, Antioquia, and twenty-five workers were displaced. I am one of these. I was working in the same plant when one of my union brothers was assassinated by the paramilitaries. That same day in the afternoon, I was kidnapped by the paramilitaries that pretended they were taking me to the city for torture and then to proceed to assassinate me. Fortunately, I was able to escape, and arrived at the police station. The police brought me to another place with my family. I want to clarify this. The paramilitaries could not kill me because people had seen that I had run away. The police were not able to hand me over to the paramilitaries for assassination, even though they work together. Too many people had seen my escape. 

This same day, our union house was burned down by the paramilitaries. All the workers were forced to renounce the union under the threat of death. The paramilitaries took up positions inside the buildings of the company. As for my life and that of my family, from this moment on, we were spinning. I was declared a military objective by the paramilitaries. I was forced to run all over the Colombian territory, a terrible situation for my family, trying to prevent a final attack and being assassinated. I decided to leave the country and separate from my family in Colombia and come to the U.S. I joined an AFL-CIO protection program for a one-year period. Following that I have to return to Colombia without a job. I was dismissed from Coca-Cola, who said I was lazy and turning down work. Before working at Coca-Cola, I never had a problem, but now look at my situation. This multinational violated my rights and those of my fellow union workers. 

Fight Back!: What are you doing now in the U.S.?

Luis Adolfo Cardona: I am involved in an AFL-CIO protection program for one year in the U.S. I think that I am doing very important work sharing my knowledge of Colombia’s problems, but most importantly how Coca-Cola mistreats their workers. Coca-Cola uses all their might. Coke is a huge multinational economic beast and they use everything they have against us. Corporate terrorism is used against the workers and their families. The American people do not know this, because Coke sells a divine image of their multinational corporation as caring for people. Coke has begun a campaign to lessen the damage to their image that our campaign is making. They are promoting an image that Coca-Cola helps to economic growth.

Fight Back!: What can the trade unionists and activists here in the U.S. do to help your situation and the campaign against death squad Coca-Cola?

Luis Adolfo Cardona: For me, I think we must unite our forces for initiating a campaign against this multinational corporation, to reduce Coca-Cola’s profits as much as possible. It is of great importance to hurt their international image. This, I think, can hurt the company very much. Also, by communicating to Coca-Cola and to politicians in the U.S. that we will deliver a message to the Coca-Cola company in Colombia and to the Colombian government that they must compromise with the union and old this multinational responsible for its criminal actions.