Why a US Coal Company Is Implicated in the Death of 3 Coal Miners in Colombia

A VICE News podcast about murder, bribery, and natural resources.
May 4, 2021, 6:56pm
​Image by Sungpyo Hong
Image by Sungpyo Hong

Show Description: 

In 2001, three coal miners in Colombia were murdered. They were union leaders, and all worked for the same U.S. company. This is an investigation into a deadly fight over labor and natural resources that ultimately led to their deaths. In Season 1, we unravel a decades-long saga of bribery, scandal, and civil war. Hosted by Ramon Campos, Sayre Quevedo, and Agnes Walton.

EPISODES

Prologue: Victor and Valmore 

Description: Two coal miners are murdered in 2001, setting off a chain of events that forever change the lives of people in Colombia and the U.S.

More: 

A 53-year-old Colombian trade unionist was assassinated in front of his son by two gunmen on a motorbike.  

The Colombian government and Marxist guerrilla groups both weaponized radio broadcasts during the country’s decades-long civil war.


Chapter 1: The Union

Description: A coal company from Alabama opens up a mine in Colombia’s Cesar Province, decades into the country’s civil war. Then members of the miner’s union start receiving death threats.  


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Over the last quarter-century, roughly 3,000 Colombian union organizers have been killed by assassins and paramilitaries. 

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VICE News visited the Catatumbo region of Colombia, at one point the front line in the country’s civil war, to investigate why farmers were getting murdered. 

Threats of violence and flawed legislation are preventing millions of Colombians from reclaiming stolen land, according to a 2014 report from Amnesty International. 

Chapter 2: Witnesses 

Description:   A third Colombian miner is murdered. An American lawyer hears about the killings, and decides to bring a civil case against the coal company in the U.S. for aiding and abetting war crimes. But first he needs to find people willing to testify.


More: 

An estimated 45,000 people disappeared during the 50-year Colombian civil war.

South African plaintiffs accused IBM and Ford of aiding and abetting human rights abuses committed by the country’s apartheid government.   

Chapter 3: The Fish Dies by Opening Its Mouth 

Description: The civil case goes to trial in a federal court in Alabama. Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer representing relatives of the murdered victims, is out to prove that the Drummond mining company had a hand in the killings. But will an Alabama jury agree?

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Rodrigo Mesa Leon and Rogelio Velez Montoya were among more than 70 small farmers that took a British oil giant to court in 2014 over environmental damage.

In February, 2021, a special court found that 6,402 civilians were murdered by the Colombian armed forces and falsely presented as rebels killed in combat. That’s 4,000 more people than previously thought.

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The end of Colombia’s civil war, and the retreat of the FARC guerrilla group from certain conflict zones, has led to a surge in deforestation


Chapter 4: Hung Out to Dry 

Description: What do a coal mining executive, an ex-NBA star, and a small Southern town have in common? A bribery scandal that rocked the state of Alabama.


More:

U.S. coal producers are mobilizing in response to President Biden’s climate change proposals.

A fire broke out at a nuclear weapons facility in Colorado in 1969, releasing the highest levels of toxic contamination ever recorded in an urban area at the time. The community is still grappling with the fallout. 

Visual artist Brooke Singer has been investigating U.S. Superfund sites since 2006. She’s found that many Americans still live on or near toxic waste.

Chapter 5: Confessions

Description: VICE News interviews people who provide more details about the Colombian coal miners were killed—including the man who went to prison for their murders. He says that there were others involved in the plan.

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In 2015, Colombia's chief public prosecutor called on the country's highest court to investigate former president Alvaro Uribe for his possible role in a 1997 massacre.

The Justice and Peace Law in Colombia gave many former paramilitary members five- to eight-year prison sentences in exchange for their cooperation and penance.

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Even on the brink of a formal peace treaty between the government and guerrilla groups, many Colombians were still concerned about future paramilitary violence. 

After 50 years, the Colombian FARC rebel group formally completed its disarmament process and went through with a long-awaited peace deal with the government.


Epilogue: 20 Years Later 

Description: A new investigation into the miners’ killings in Colombia promises answers.

More:

Last year was the deadliest on record for human rights defenders in Colombia, and activists say the government is not doing enough to protect them.

The Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. has struck a chord with Afro-Colombians.