3 Union Leaders Were Shot Dead and Colombia Says an American Company Financed Their Killers

The murders, which happened 20 years ago, were committed by paramilitaries who Colombian investigators say were financed by an Alabama coal company.
April 21, 2021, 5:27pm
Victor Orcasita (left), Valmore Locarno (center), and Gustavo Soler (right) were three union members who worked for the  Drummond Company at their mine in Colombia. They were killed by paramilitaries in 2001.
Victor Orcasita (left), Valmore Locarno (center), and Gustavo Soler (right) were three union members who worked for the  Drummond Company at their mine in Colombia. They were killed by paramilitaries in 2001. Credit: Sintramienenergetica Union.

VALLEDUPAR, Colombia - On the evening of March 12, 2001, two pickup trucks driven by Colombian paramilitaries stopped a bus of workers traveling home from their shift at a coal mine owned by Alabama-based Drummond Company. The paramilitaries ordered the workers off the bus, confiscated their IDs, and told them to line up on their knees. 

Then they pulled Valmore Locarno, the president of the mineworkers’ union, out of the line and shot him in the back of the head. 

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“After his body hit the ground, they shot him three more times,” said Juan Carlos Rojas who took VICE World News journalists out to the location where the ambush happened. Rojas was one of the workers pulled off the bus along with Locarno.

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Juan Carlos Rojas took up the position of president of the local branch of the union Sintramienenergetica after three of his coworkers were murdered. Photo by Ramon Campos Iriarte for VICE World News.

Then the armed men identified Victor Orcasita, the vice president of the union, put him onto the bed of one of the trucks, and left.

“No one on the bus could do anything,” Rojas said. 

The paramilitaries were armed, and the workers were so afraid that they left the scene immediately, leaving the body of Valmore Locarno on the side of the road.

“We knew that we shouldn’t leave our comrade who had been shot just lying there. That we could have collected his body, that we could have taken him back, but we were terrified. We were overtaken by panic and fear.” 

The next day, Orcasita’s body was found. He’d been tortured and shot. 

Several months later, another union member named Gustavo Soler, who took on the role of president after the deaths of Locarno and Orcasita, was pulled off a public bus by paramilitary members. His body was later found with two gunshots to the head.

These murders happened two decades ago. And in the years that followed, multiple civil court cases in the U.S. attempted to resolve the question of why these union members were murdered, and who was involved. 

In December 2020, the office of Colombia’s Attorney General charged two executives from the American coal company Drummond Company Inc. with financing and promoting the paramilitary group that killed these union leaders.  

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The executives, former president of Drummond Augusto Jimenez and current president Jose Miguel Linares, are accused of financing the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), which was the country’s largest and deadliest paramilitary group in the decades long civil war in Colombia, during which paramilitaries and the government clashed with leftwing guerrillas.

This case is part of a new push to hold multinational companies accountable for their involvement in the conflict, and is tied to the 2016 peace treaty between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group. The agreement established a dedicated transitional justice system to investigate and prosecute people who directly participated in the conflict -- as well as “third-party actors”, such as businesses and politicians who financed or aided any of the warring parties.

From 1996 to 2006 the Juan Andres Alvarez front - a faction of the AUC that operated near Drummond’s mines - was responsible for “at least 2,600 targeted killings, murdered an estimated 500 people in massacres, and made more than 240 people disappear,” according to a 2014 report by PAX, a human rights and environmental group based in the Netherlands. Paramilitary violence caused more than 59,000 forced displacements in the region where Drummond’s mine are located, according to the report. 

There have long been allegations, including in civil lawsuits, that multinational companies -- including Drummond, Dole Food, Del Monte, and Chiquita Brands -- financed right-wing paramilitaries around their operations in Colombia. In 2017, the Attorney General’s office announced that companies and third parties who financed these groups could be accused of “crimes against humanity,” and the next year filed charges against 13 executives at Chiquita — the company pleaded guilty to making payments to a terrorist organization and agreed to pay a $25 million fine.

The Attorney General’s office has been investigating Drummond’s alleged involvement in the murders of union leaders since at least 2018. They have produced a financial audit that alleges the company was funnelling money to paramilitaries through a contractor who was hired to run food services in the canteen. And now the case could help set a precedent for how companies are held responsible for their involvement in Colombia’s civil war, in that it would potentially not only link a company to paramilitary groups but to the deaths of its own workers at the hands of those groups.

Drummond Company, the Alabama-based coal company, at the center of the investigation, told VICE World News that the allegations are “nothing new,” and they expect both Jimenez and Linares to be proven innocent.  

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“In Colombia’s judicial system, like in the U.S., people are innocent until proven guilty,” the company wrote after VICE World News reached out for comment. 

Drummond Company opened its first coal mine in Cesar province in 1995. The mine was a boon for Drummond and the Colombian government; Drummond paid taxes and royalties to the state and the mine brought thousands of jobs to the area. Between 1995 and 2015, the company paid about 4 billion dollars in royalties and taxes, according to company statements.

But the late 90s and early 2000s were also the height of Colombia’s five-decade civil war between the government - whose policies generally benefited wealthy landowners and urban elites - and leftist guerrilla groups that demanded systemic changes, such as land reform, political reform, and nationalizing the country’s natural resources.

The guerrillas targeted politicians, wealthy landowners, and multinational companies. They extorted businesses, forcing them to pay a war tax, blew up oil pipelines, sabotaged industrial operations, and kidnapped foreign executives.

In the 1990s, the government temporarily sanctioned the formation of private self-defense groups that would fight the guerrillas. When they were later outlawed, these paramilitary groups continued to have covert support from political and economic elites and from within the military.

Tens of thousands of people, many of whom were not involved in the conflict, were killed or disappeared and entire communities were driven from their land. The paramilitaries targeted anyone they believed was a guerrilla sympathizer: teachers, activists, students, human rights defenders —and, notably, union members. 

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Drummond’s mining operations grew and expanded in the middle of this chaos. 

Between 1995 and 2000, the railway that transported coal from Drummond’s mine to the company’s port on the Caribbean coast was bombed dozens of times, according to people who worked at the mine. Some company employees believed the guerrillas were behind the bombings. According to the later testimony of a mine supervisor, senior management at Drummond believed union members were connected to the guerrillas. 

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Coal extracted at the Drummond mine in Colombia is shipped all around the world. Photo by Ramon Campos Iriarte for VICE World News.

A crew supervisor told an Alabama court in that 2007 case that managers at Drummond’s mine, including Locarno’s supervisor “said the union and the guerrillas were pretty much one and the same and also that they were responsible for the sabotage of the rail lines.” 

Drummond’s chief of security at the time, former CIA agent Jim Adkins, also believed there was a connection. In an interview with VICE World News in January 2021, Adkins said he still believes the attacks were connected to the tensions in negotiations between the union and the company. 

“The negotiations would break down and all of a sudden we would get a train blown up,” said Adkins, who believes that the guerrilla groups were enforcing the interests of the union, but declined to provide any proof. VICE World News interviewed Solis Almeida, the former FARC commander who was in charge of FARC’s 41st Front, a group that which operated in the area at that time, and he categorically denied having any links to the union.  

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In 2000, the local branch of Sintramienergetica, the union that represents hundreds of Drummond workers, held several meetings with executives about contract negotiations and safety concerns. That summer, four mine workers had been killed in a landslide, so workplace safety was an issue. They were also dissatisfied with the food served at the company cafeteria, where the workers ate almost all their meals. Juan Carlos Rojas remembers that the food was “disgusting” and that “sometimes there were rocks in the rice.” He and other union members also say that staff at the cafeteria were armed.

“I have never seen someone serving a plate of food while armed with a pistol,” said Rojas. 

At this point, the leaders of the union, Valmore Locarno and Victor Orcasita, were also receiving death threats. They asked Drummond for housing at the mine, so they wouldn’t have to commute through areas controlled by paramilitaries. They also met multiple times with Colombia’s intelligence agency (Departamento Adiminstrativo de Seguridad, or DAS by its Spanish initials) and asked for a “security assessment” to determine if there was a legitimate threat against the union leaders. If they were found to be at risk, the government would have been required to take action to protect them, and provide them with bodyguards and armored cars. 

But, according to Jimenez’s own testimony, Drummond denied their housing request and the intelligence agency determined that the threat against them was of “medium to low risk” and did not grant the union leaders any security.

About a month later, on March 12th 2001, Valmore Locarno and Victor Orcasita were murdered. Then Gustavo Soler, another Drummond worker, decided to step in as president. But Soler headed the union for only a few months: on October 6th of that same year he was murdered.

Following the killings, Valmore Locarno’s wife, Yaneth Baloco, started receiving threatening phone calls from people who identified themselves as paramilitary members. She filed a report about the threats with Colombia’s intelligence agency, and shortly after got yet another call. 

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“The person [on the phone] told me to stop doing what I was doing. That they knew who I was. That they knew where I lived, where my son and niece went to school. They gave me one month to leave.” Baloco fled with her two children to El Salvador, then sought asylum in Canada. 

In 2007, a team of lawyers representing the Sintramienergetica union and the families of the victims - including Baloco - brought a civil case against Drummond in the United States. Their suit alleged that the president of Drummond in Colombia, Augusto Jimenez, with the knowledge of executives in the U.S., paid paramilitaries to kill three union leaders -- Valmore Locarno, Victor Orcasita, and Gustavo Soler. 

An Alabama jury found in favor of Drummond. But, Terry Collingsworth, the most dogged of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, continued to pursue legal action against the company. He filed cases on behalf of the murdered union leaders’ children, as well as families and individuals who were killed by the paramilitaries in Cesar. None of those cases were successful. Collingsworth was then sued by Drummond for libel. That case against Collingsworth is still pending.

Meanwhile, other information surfaced that offered new revelations.

From 2002 to 2006, the Colombian government negotiated the demobilization of the AUC paramilitaries. The Justice and Peace Law, the legal foundation for the process, allowed for paramilitary members to turn in their weapons and confess their crimes in exchange for a maximum sentence of eight years in prison. Thousands came forward. And several confessed to their involvement in the murders of the Drummond union leaders. 

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Through those confessions, one person emerged as the mastermind behind the murders: Jaime Blanco, the food contractor who ran the mine’s cafeteria.

In 2013 in Colombia, Blanco was found guilty of aggravated murder and planning the killing of Victor Orcasita and Valmore Locarno and sentenced to 38 years in prison. Blanco then pointed to Drummond and stated that executives at Drummond had funneled money to the armed group. Blanco specifically points to Jim Adkins – alleging that Adkins knew about the plan to murder the three union men and was even involved in it. In an interview with VICE World News, Adkins denied having anything to do with the murders of the union members. 

At the time, Blanco, as well as other paramilitary members were being paid by Terry Collingsworth. Collingsworth said these payments were for protection, but a U.S. federal judge sanctioned him for not disclosing them. However the substance of these confessions has been corroborated by other testimonies as well as in judicial sentencing documents. 

Now, the Colombian Attorney General’s report shows that Drummond did in fact overpay Blanco, raising questions whether, since Jimenez and Linares allegedly had to sign off on Blanco’s invoices, they also knew about the plan to funnel money to the paramilitaries. Since the paramilitaries admitted to killing Locarno, Orcasita and Soler, money from Drummond could have helped pay for their murders. 

The case, which took two decades to unravel, is now in the hands of a Colombian judge. And its verdict could set an important new precedent for global corporate accountability — and finally provide answers for the families of the men who were killed.

Hear the whole series in English or Spanish