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Drink Atlas beer, finance a death squad invasion of Panama?
by Eric Jackson, mainly from other media
It's huge news in Colombia, but when not absolutely ignore here, just the tiniest blip in the corporate mainstream news coverage about which nobody in the government takes the slightest notice. Follow the money trail in the advertising business and know the close relationship between President Torrijos, his party and this country's ad agency cartel.
Grant all that, but still the jailed leader of Colombia's vicious AUC paramilitaries, Salvatore Mancuso, has been talking in a Medellin courtroom about the nature, activities and financial backing of the movement he led and one of the things he has alleged is that the company that controls some 80 percent of Panama's beer business paid for death squad terror.
Atlas and Balboa are made by Cerveceria Nacional, which was sold in 2001 to Grupo Bavaria, a Colombian company then controlled by Julio Mario Santodomingo, whom Forbes magazine lists as one of the world's 500 richest persons. In 2005 a controlling interest in Grupo Bavaria was in turn sold to SABMiller, one of the decreasing number of large multinational brewers.
From the mid-1990s until at least 2004, Mancuso claims, the AUC received 70 cents for each case of beer marketed by Bavaria in the Uraba area of Colombia, which is adjacent to the Panamanian province of Kuna Yala. AUC forces operating from Uraba repeatedly attacked Panama, including a number of kidnappings and murders and the November 1999 burning of the village of La Bonga.
Bavaria has denied that it made any such payments, but the denial is less than categorical. Its distributors are formally independent contractors, but Mancuso said that the payoffs to the AUC were made by distributors with the full knowledge of Bavaria. The company said that it has reviewed its records and didn't make any payments to distributors to cover the costs of paramilitary subsidies.
Mancuso's testimony has implicated many a politician and many a company. He spoke of a penny per box of bananas payment to the AUC made by Chiquita Brands, Dole and Del Monte, subsidies that added up to millions. Chiquita has admitted the payoffs and paid a $25 million civil fine for them in the United States. (Despite the AUC's inclusion since 2001 on Washington's official list of terrorist organizations, nobody's going to jail over this.) Dole and Del Monte deny the payoffs. South Korea's Hyundai Motors, Mancuso alleged, pitched in for the paramilitary cause with in-kind donations of vehicles.
Meanwhile Colombian labor unions charge that Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and Alabama-based Drummond Coal hired the paramilitary forces to assassinate their leaders. The ties between payoffs and the murders of labor activists are flatly denied by the companies, with the general corporate claim that it was the AUC that shook them down for payments.
Mancuso's testimony confirmed old knowledge about close cooperation between Colombia's armed forces and the AUC, and paramilitary ties with Colombia's political elites, including the people around President Álvaro Uribe. Despite long-standing independent documentation of such ties, successive US administrations certified that they didn't exist as part of the process of continuing Plan Colombia military aid. Now, however, the allegations of official ties to AUC abuses have gained such strong creedence in Washington that Democrats are poised to reject a US-Colombia free trade agreement on precisely that ground.
Chiquita, Del Monte and Bavaria all operate in Panama. The AUC has over the years staged a number of incursions into this country, in the course of which they assassinated public officials in Kuna villages in the Darien; kidnapped citizens of Colombia, Panama and the United States from Panamanian territory; threatened Panamanians; vandalized churches, schools, health care clinics and public telephones; smuggled weapons, drugs and money derived from criminal activities through Panama; and set fire to people's homes. Nevertheless, the Torrijos administration has made no comment about these corporations financing those who have repeatedly attacked Panama.
During the Moscoso administration Panamanian government support for the AUC's cross-border death squad activities was barely hidden. The Torrijos administration has been a bit more circumspect, but when one considers such policies as the National Police blocking food shipments to villages near the Colombian border for the expressed reason of preventing supplied from reaching the FARC guerrillas and the allowance of Plan Colombia support flights operating out of Albrook, it appears that any differences between this and the previous administration are more style than substance. Despite new Panamanian anti-terrorist legislation, no company operating in Panama is likely to be questioned about, let alone penalized for, its ties to the AUC.
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