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Colombia reopens probe into US coal company for militia ties

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombian authorities confirmed Tuesday that they have reopened an investigation into whether an Alabama-based coal company financed a paramilitary group during the South American nation’s bloody civil conflict.

The chief prosecutor’s office said the investigation into the Colombian subsidiary of Drummond Co. Inc. is focusing on irregular payments allegedly made to a contractor, Jose Blanco, who was convicted in 2013 in the killing of two union leaders who worked at Drummond. He was sentenced to 38 years in prison.

Accusations have long swirled that Drummond financed an umbrella paramilitary group, but U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled against the families of the Colombian victims.

Authorities declined to provide details on why the probe was being reopened now. The Colombian newspaper El Tiempo first reported the investigation.

Drummond issued a statement Tuesday denying the accusation and vowing to cooperate fully with any probe.

“The company reiterates that it has never supported illegal armed groups,” the statement said.

Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer representing relatives of those killed by right-wing militias during the conflict, said the new investigation is a “first step” toward holding Drummond officials accountable and paying reparations.

“Justice is coming,” he said.

Drummond has been operating in Colombia for several decades and is one of the nation’s biggest coal exporters. In repeated lawsuits, human rights activists and victim relatives have alleged that Drummond hired militias to silence union activists and suspected leftists.

Colombia’s conflict between leftist rebels, the state and paramilitary groups left at least 250,000 dead, 60,000 missing and millions displaced over more than five decades.

Drummond is not the first U.S. corporation to be accused of financing paramilitary groups. Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International pleaded guilty to paying right-wing militias in 2007, saying it was extorted and paid out of fear of violent retaliation.

In August, Colombian prosecutors announced that they had charged 13 Chiquita employees with aiding a death squad which murdered hundreds of people.

Blanco, the convicted Drummond contractor, ran a food services concession for the company and told The Associated Press in a jailhouse interview in 2011 that senior management had ordered the two union organizers killed.

Union leaders Valmore Locarno, 42 and Victor Hugo Orcasita, 36, worked in a Drummond mine in the northern state of Cesar and were killed in 2001 by paramilitaries as they returned from a shift.

El Tiempo reported that eight Drummond executives will be summoned to explain unusually high payments made to Blanco through his food company.

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.



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