Journalist Petitions US Judge Bowdre to Unseal Documents in Union Murders at Drummond's Colombia Coal Mines
By Stephen Flanagan Jackson
(BOGOTA,COLOMBIA) — Fernando Leyva, publisher of LatinAmericanPost.com, said today he encouraged editor Stephen Flanagan Jackson to file in US Federal Court in Birmingham, Ala. an appeal of the US judge's denial of his—and the media's and the public's—First Amendment rights in covering the long-running civil murder trial of three slain Colombian union leaders brutally executed near the Drummond coal mines in La Loma, Colombia in 2001. The civil case is in a US court under the obscure Alien Torts Claim Act of 1789. Coca-Cola, Del Monte, Unocal and other multinationals are being called to task by international labor under the almost-forgotten law which allows foreigners to sue private US citizens or corporations for alleged wrongdoings (a tort) abroad.
“I am the only Gringo journalist to have a copy of these sealed documents,” said Jackson, referring to a Colombian's deposition and also to the depostion of Garry N. Drummond, CEO and head of Drummond Coal Co. Jackson's lawyer, Barry Ragsdale, filed a Notice of Appeal May 26 after the judge denied an earlier request by Jackson to unseal the documents which reveal the sworn-to testimony of a Colombia eye witness to a $200,000 payoff from Drummond's top man in Bogota, Augusta Jiminez, to paramilitary hitmen in order “to kill trade union leaders” at Drummond's La Loma coal mines. The sealed documents, obtained as well by an El Nuevo Herald journalist, also reveal the extent and details of Drummond's alleged influence of the US State Department and the US Justice Department to have the Drummond civil murders case dropped due to the possibility of sensitive, secret relations between the US and Colombia governments being made known. Mr. Drummond, a University of Alabama trustee emeritus, testifies about paying a half million dollars in “stipends” to the Colombia police and military for protection of the Drummond mines and port.
Jackson's appeal is filed in Federal Court in Birmingham where previously the judge slapped a “SINTRAMIENERGETICA” lawyer with a $500 fine for contempt because he introduced the payoff witness's document into open court May 16. Federal judge Karon O. Bowdre, incensed that the Colombian labor union lawyer, Daniel Kovalik, had the temerity to enter thevolatile documents, ordered them sealed at the request of Drummond lawyers on May 17. The judge denied a Jackson motion to unseal the documents, thus prompting Jackson's May 26 appeal.
In denying Jackson's original motion to unseal the documents, the judge said, “this case (should) not be tried in the media, but instead be tried in the courtroom….” She said the sealed documents with the bombshell revelations should not have been filed and was a “gratuitous filing…designed to inflame the media and public opinion…” The judge added, in denying Jackson's First Amendment appeal to open the documents, “…sealing these documents is not designed to be a prior restraint on the publication of any materials by the press. However, the court encourages judicious action that is mindful of the firestorm that could result from widespread publication of these unexamined statements by a witness who is in prison in a foreign country and therefore not readily available for direct questioning.”
The judge is referring to the “Colombia Canary,” former DAS officer Rafael Garcia who has not been convicted but is in Carcel Picota, a prison south of Bogota, on charges of money laundering and computer manipulation of DAS data. Garcia has recently been singing a tune of corruption in the Colombian government, including relations with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and voting fraud charges against Colombian President Uribe, a landslide winner in the May Colombia election. Based on Garcia's testimony, a number of former DAS officials have been indicted by the Colombian government. DAS is the Spanish acronym for Department of Administrative Security, Colombia's equivalent to the FBI.
“We are under constant threats from the paramilitary and “sicarios” (hired assassins) while Drummond has the Colombian army—backed by US funds—guarding its La Loma facilities and we (union members) are left to fend for ourselves,” says Omar Estupinan, now the SINTRAMIENERGETIC union local president at La Loma. Estupinan has fled his hometown for sanctuary in Bogota, the capital city.
Three previous Colombia union leaders—Gustavo Soler, Valmore Locarno, and Victor Hugo Orcasita—were brutally assassinated near the Drummond mines in 2001. No charges have been filed in Colombia, but Drummond faces a controversial civil wrongful deaths case meandering turtle-slow in US Federal Court in Birmingham, Ala. Jury selection is expected this November in the case filed in 2004 by the union's lawyers of the United Steelworkers and the International Relief Fund.
Other documents sealed by the US judge—a Bush appointee—reveal efforts by Drummond to influence the US State and Justice Departments to dismiss the case on grounds that US national security would be compromised by information related to the trial. Sources indicate that the US State Department has, indeed, sent a letter to the judge regarding the Drummond civil murders case. Jackson's petition to open the documents to the public and to the press is currently bogged down in Federal Court.
Drummond Co. has consistently stated that the allegations of its complicity in the murders are false. “The charges are lies…damnable lies,” commented William Jeffress, Jr., a Drummond attorney with Baker Botts of Washington, DC, previous to the judge's first gag order in 2004.
In a recent interview in Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe said passport records show that Drummond's Jiminez was out of Colombia at the time Garcia claims to have been in the payoff meeting with Jiminez and the paramilitary.
Drummond's lawyers have rolled out the “political question” doctrine and the “international comity” doctrine in a last ditch effort to quash the homicide charges and stop the civil case, maintaining a trial presents the possibility of compromising US national security issues. The US has officially declared the left-wing guerrilla and the right-wing paramilitary as “terrorists”—both Colombia groups active around the Drummond mines.
“Judge Bowdre's order has a chilling effect by cutting me off from my sources, potential sources, and information about this case,” says Jackson, “The judge's order is a violation of my First Amendment rights as a journalist, of the media's First Amendment rights, and the general public's First Amendment rights—which include the right-to-know.
“The judge is throwing a shroud over this case,” says Jackson. “Mr. Ragsdale, my lawyer, and I are not threatening Drummond's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.
“We are looking out for the First Amendment right to monitor the administration of justice without any undue restrictions on the monitoring and without regards to the manner and style in which the information in communicated.”
Drummond ships coal from its lucrative Colombia mine all over the world. A big customer is The Southern Company—parent of Alabama Power—which receives coal shipments through the Port of Mobile.
contact Jackson at email@example.com