by a social researcher living in Colombia
On March 12, 2001 the President and Vice-President of the union local representing workers at the Drummond mine at La Loma, Cesar, Colombia, were murdered after several months of conflict between the union and the company.
The interview below was conducted in early May with a member of the union executive of the El Paso Local of Sintramienergética, representing the workers at the La Loma coal mine, owned and operated by Drummond, an American mining company headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama. Sintramienergética also represents other workers in the energy and mining sector in Colombia. The union representative requested anonymity, due to current security problems faced by the union. The author has also asked to remain anonymous.
MiningWatch: First, can you describe the conflicts between the union and the company?
UR: There have been several disagreements. The poor quality of the food provided doesn't comply with the standard stipulated in the collective agreement. It's not a balanced meal, as outlined in the agreement signed. There have been a lot of health-related problems, which have been becoming more serious, with the restrictions being imposed by the health insurance company, Liberty, an American company, which is not providing services previously provided by the former insurer.
MiningWatch: What about occupational health?
UR: Within the mine occupational health seems to be more a theory, than a practice of real support for the workers. Every time workers go to the doctor coordinating the occupational health services, we don't get the response required.
MiningWatch: What are the most serious occupational health problems?
UR: We have a lot of compañeros with serious back problems, caused by work accidents, which are being aggravated due to lack of medical attention.
MiningWatch: How many people work in the La Loma mine and how many have been injured?
UR: There are about 1,200 in total, but that includes everyone working for the company in Colombia, including the port and administrative staff. There are about 900 workers working in the mine, of whom at least 72 have serious health problems, generally difficulties in their mobility due to spine injuries. Seven workers have died, 5 of them in accidents, in less than a year.
MiningWatch: Please describe the events of March 12, 2001.
UR: According to the workers who were eyewitnesses, our President Valmore Locarno, and Vice-President, Victor Orcasita were murdered. Although they weren't on shift that day, after meeting with the company they took the second bus out with the rest of the workers at 6 p.m. The bus was intercepted by armed men traveling in a white vehicle, who forced the driver to stop on the route; they made the workers get off and identify themselves, murdered the President, Valmore Locarno, in front of everyone, and took the Vice-President away, tied up, and killed him later.
MiningWatch: Who were the men who killed them?
UR: We presume they were from the paramilitary group with a strong influence in the zone.
MiningWatch: Had the union received death threats from the paramilitary?
UR: Although we'd received a lot of direct death threats, the perpetrators never identified themselves. However, they had accused the union executive of being guerrillas, which is a typical accusation of the extreme right. They accused the union itself of being guerrillas, and of blowing up the trains, which is completely false, because we limit our actions to what is allowed by the law.
MiningWatch: Were these murders preventable?
UR: I think so, because the union had denounced the threats well before the murders, and had requested in writing that the company allow the leaders to overnight at the site, in view of the gravity of the threats made against them. The company roundly refused to allow this.
Worse still, despite the events, the company is still refusing to allow the remaining leaders to overnight at the site, even though they signed an agreement shortly after the murders to that effect. The agreement stipulated that the company would allow not only the union leaders, but any worker who considered themselves in danger, to stay at the mine. The company has totally ignored this agreement.
MiningWatch: How did the union members react to the murders?
UR: Initially there was a work stoppage, decreed by the company itself, to allow the union members to attend the funeral with the families of the murdered men. Then we asked to prolong the stoppage, which the company agreed to, to examine the circumstances. In total we were off 4 days.
MiningWatch: Given that there is a strong paramilitary presence in the zone around the mine, in view of the events, do union members believe the company has a relationship with the paramilitary group operating in the area?
UR: To make that kind of an affirmation, we'd have to have absolute proofs. I don't have them. What we can say though is that the paramilitary groups are absolutely everywhere in the area, and the attitude of the company has been total indifference to the security of the workers, especially of the union leaders, which is very worrying.
MiningWatch: How does this attitude compare to the company's attitude regarding the safety of the company officials?
UR: It's like night and day. While a company official enjoys all guarantees necessary to move around the mine site, and the area, the workers have none. American personnel and other high-ranking officials are taken out by airplane each day to Cartagena and Santa Marta.
MiningWatch: The Colombian government, given the high incidence of murders of trade unionists, and international pressure regarding the matter, has instituted a protection program for trade unionists. Did the union executive members request protection from the government under this program?
UR: Yes, in fact the compañeros who were murdered informed several government ministries last year of the multiple threats against their lives, and requested that the Ministry of the Interior take the appropriate measures to protect them. In fact, Valmore went personally to the Ministry to ask for at least minimal measures to be taken, like a communication system between the union leaders and the government entities in charge of ensuring citizen safety, a guard at the union headquarters, and a body-guard when union leaders had to move between Valledupar and the mine, or within Valledupar. But the money for those measures was never released, and now they've been murdered.
Since the murders, we've been after the Ministry again to ensure our safety, but the only thing they've done so far is provide us with some cell phones that don't work. They're supposed to have a certain number of minutes in operation, but they don't work in Valledupar. Same with the bullet-proofing of the headquarters that we've requested, to protect the union executive members. Nothing.
MiningWatch: Have there been attacks against the union headquarters?
UR: So far, no. But threats, yes. And the movement of strange people and vehicles around the headquarters.
MiningWatch: How has the labour-management atmosphere been at the mine since the murders, and how have the paramilitary presence and death-threats affected the negotiating capacity of the union?
UR: Given the events, and the fact that the company hasnt' been interested in providing any real security to its workers. logically there's enormous tension and concern, which is being reflected in the increased number of accidents, which has doubled or even tripled. Many of the workers can't sleep properly, after they finish their 12 hour shift, in the eight hours left over when they get home, because they're worried the same thing will happen to them.
MiningWatch: What about other aspects of the working conditions? What's the average monthly wage of a typical worker, for example, a machine operator at the La Loma mine?
UR: Workers in any of the four classifications at the mine get between 1,050,000 pesos (~ US$ 477) and 2,100,000 pesos (US$ 955) a month, per month, for working 12-hour shifts for 10 or 11 days of every 14. La Loma is an open-pit mine; Drummond has been very lucky, because the coal is right near the surface, and the workers are well-skilled and disciplined, and the companys been able to reach in just five years the production goals they set to be met in ten years or more.
MiningWatch: Do you have any idea what the production costs per ton are here, compared with costs elsewhere?
UR: I don't know the exact figures, but what I can say is that if Drummond is here, it's because theyre making a good profit!
MiningWatch: Do you have any last words for the American and Canadian public, and especially for the trade unionists of these countries?
UR: Yes. We'd like them to demand that the companies that come here from their countries contribute more to the development of the regions. We see here, especially in the case of the region where Drummond is located, that company investment in the region in minimal. The quality of public education and health in the communities where the workers live is very low; the company has brought in workers from other regions, instead of training local people, to avoid the expense of training people. So, we'd like Canadians and Americans to pressure the companies to compensate the local communities here for the large amounts of mineral resources that they are currently removing.
Editor's Note: According to company data, the coal produced at La Loma "is an excellent thermal coal, also a candidate for pulverized coal injection (PCI) for steel mills, and a product for the sized coal market. The coal comes from 11 recoverable coal seams, with thicknesses varying from the 8.0-meter face of the Gran Madre seam to the smallest seam at only 0.5 meters thick. Coal quality parameters vary slightly from seam to seam, but the composite average is that of a low-sulfur, low-ash coal, with heat value of 11,800 BTU per pound (6550 Kcal/kg) on an as-received basis. The average sulfur is 0.65%, with a considerable amount in the 0.35 range, and a majority in the 0.6 to 0.7 range. The ash averages 5.5%, with a range of 3.1 to 8.5%. Mina Pribbenow, located near La Loma in the Department of Cesar, has reserves in excess of 485 million metric tons"
A company web page regarding employment opportunities with Drummond states "International Coal Producer has expatriate and rotational assignments in South America. Expatriates live in the Caribbean Resort of Cartagena, Colombia with company provided air transport to and from the work site. Rotational assignments are based in Birmingham, Alabama with corporate jet service to Cartagena and air transport to the work site. Rotations are two weeks on site and one week in U.S. On site accommodations are secure full service hotel style complexes."
 The President and Vice-President has been involved in negotiations with the company that day.
 Orcasita's body was found at dawn the next day.
 Private trains carrying the coal from the mine to the port.
 Coastal resort cities, about 300 kilometres away from the mine.
 According to Amnesty International, at least 112 Colombian trade unionists were killed in 2000, and 35 in the first three months of 2001.