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The open-pit Pribbenow coal mine in northeastern Colombia is operated by Alabama-based Drummond Co.

The Colombian Murder Case That Refuses to Die

Twenty-two years ago, three union leaders for mine workers employed by an American company were killed. The murders have gone unsolved. But now the Colombian government is prosecuting two company executives for financing the paramilitary group responsible for the killings.

The open-pit Pribbenow coal mine in northeastern Colombia is operated by Alabama-based Drummond Co.

Three enormous open-pit mines owned by Drummond Co. in northern Colombia dwarf the nearby town of La Loma, which sprang up after the U.S. company began extracting coal in 1995 and has grown to some 10,000 residents. Life in La Loma revolves around the mines. Packed company buses flood the town every 12 hours, at the 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. shift changes. After workers who have just completed their shifts empty out, the buses fill right back up with fresh replacements waiting to be taken to the mines to begin theirs.

Alabama-based Drummond has earned billions from its local operations, and most of the surrounding area in Cesar province has paved roads, a result of the development the mining industry has brought to the region. Near La Loma’s idyllic town square, which boasts a colonial-style church and half a dozen restaurants, a health clinic has erected a plaque thanking the company for the contributions that made even rudimentary medical care possible.

On a brutally hot, dry morning in September, dust filled the air with every breeze as a Drummond guard patrolled the area around El Descanso, the largest of the company’s mines, just north of town. He walked slowly along a railroad line that transports coal from Drummond’s mines to a coastal port it owns on the Caribbean Sea 120 miles away. The guard was friendly and casual, but when a New Republic reporter raised his camera to take a photo of a passing railcar, he waved and shouted warnings to stop.

His concern over a reporter snapping a photograph of the train line may seem overly dramatic, but it was understandable given the backstory. In 2001, three union leaders representing workers at the mines were assassinated by marauding thugs. Their murders have never been fully solved more than two decades later. The quiet scene on that September day belied the violent events that unfolded at the time, when the army and allied right-wing paramilitaries largely controlled Cesar province during the peak of Colombia’s 52-year civil war. Much of the violence and “social cleansings” they committed took place in towns that lay along the tracks.

The cast of characters in the sordid tale of murder, political intrigue, and backdoor deals could have been plucked directly from Hollywood casting: the heir of a billionaire Alabama family, paramilitary commanders with nicknames like “Triple Zero” and “Jorge 40,” narco-traffickers with historic ties to Pablo Escobar, Colombian military officers, leftist guerrilla leaders, embattled trade unionists, and—at the absolute heart of the tale—a CIA spy turned corporate mercenary whom Drummond hired to run its security operations a few years after the agency pushed him out for supporting the Contras in Nicaragua, an activity that at the time was barred by the Boland Amendment, during the Iran-Contra scandal.

Important evidence continues to come to light about the murders of the labor leaders, the subjects of a lengthy, often delayed investigation in Colombia that recently picked up steam. The focus of the probe is unraveling the bloody events that took place on the afternoon of March 12, 2001, when armed men in pickup trucks stopped a bus carrying Drummond workers home after their long shift in the mines. The men belonged to a unit of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the country’s most notorious right-wing paramilitary group, commonly known as the AUC. After boarding the bus, they began searching passengers one by one, claiming they were looking for an illegal weapon.

But witnesses say the paramilitary fighters were interested only in two men, Valmore Locarno and Victor Orcasita, the president and vice president of Sintramienergética, the mining union that represented Drummond workers. Locarno was pulled aside immediately after being identified and shot in the head by one of the armed men, who dumped his lifeless body on the side of the road. The squad from the AUC took Orcasita with them. The following day, his body was discovered a few kilometers away; his corpse showed signs he’d been tortured before being executed.

Seven months later, AUC members stopped a bus that Gustavo Soler, who succeeded Locarno as union president, was taking home from his office. Soler, who had been receiving threats to his life, had told his family that they needed to pack up their belongings so they could leave for a safer location after he got home. He never made it. When Soler stepped forward after his name was called by a paramilitary soldier, he was abducted and disappeared. He was later found under a pile of banana leaves with two bullet holes in his head.

The murders of the union officials have been investigated several times in Colombia and the United States, and allegations surrounding the events have been heard in court on a few occasions. However, the plot that led to the killings has never been fully disentangled.

The offices of the Sintramienergética miners union in Colombia. The portraits on the wall are of assassinated union leaders Gustavo Soler and Victor Orcasita.

In an unexpected development earlier this year, Colombia’s federal prosecutor’s office announced that two senior executives at Drummond Ltd., Drummond Co.’s subsidiary in the country, would be prosecuted for allegedly financing the AUC. The Drummond executives are accused of secretly paying the AUC to protect the company’s operations from leftist guerrillas, even as the paramilitary group killed tens of thousands of people as it rampaged across the country. The government’s indictment of the Drummond executives describes the company’s alleged collaboration with the AUC—which the State Department put on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations months after the first two union leaders were assassinated—as having resulted in corporate financing of a paramilitary group, which the prosecutor’s office has classified as a “crime against humanity.”

Drummond’s ties to the AUC are also being scrutinized by an independent special court set up to investigate crimes committed during the civil war, which ended in 2016, by government security forces, paramilitaries, guerrillas, and third parties—including national and multinational corporations. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace, known as the JEP, its Spanish acronym, has heard testimony from some former Drummond contractors and paramilitary leaders who charge that the AUC killed the union leaders at the request of the company’s most senior executives in Colombia and the United States.

Drummond denies any wrongdoing and says the evidence against it was fabricated by “a cartel of false witnesses” who were paid by lawyers representing the victims’ families. In 2007, a jury in Alabama absolved the company of responsibility for the murders. The ruling was appealed, but a judge upheld the jury’s verdict.

The investigations by Colombia’s federal prosecutor and the JEP cite a wealth of new evidence that appears to implicate Drummond in the murders, and lawyers in the Alabama case have compiled much more. During many months of reporting, The New Republic reviewed reams of court records and other documents, including material that has never been made public, and uncovered additional important information relevant to the case.

It remains to be seen whether the JEP investigation and the upcoming trial of Drummond executives will end with the company being exonerated once again or—as lawyers and supporters of the victims’ families hope—with the first criminal convictions of a foreign multinational’s corporate officers for getting into bed with Colombia’s murderous paramilitary thugs. For its part, Drummond hopes the case will finally be forgotten, but in La Loma and the surrounding region, memories of the murders are always lurking just beneath the surface.

The company railroad weighs heavily in the chain of events that led to the murders of the three union leaders in 2001. It’s a day Drummond has been trying to erase for the past two decades, so it was no surprise that the guard was unhappy with the journalist as he prepared to photograph such a powerful reminder of what took place. The guard relaxed when he saw the journalist lower his camera and apologized as he approached. “We’re a little strict about security,” he said with a laugh.

Drummond Sets Up Shop

When Drummond’s mining operations finally opened for business in 1995 after a decade of investment and planning, they were set up in a particularly violent region during a civil war that is estimated to have killed nearly half a million people and displaced more than seven million more. The civil war began officially in 1964, with the founding of what became the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a leftist rebel group. By the mid-1990s, the FARC had grown into the largest irregular armed group in the country and actively targeted large companies it viewed as key allies of the government.

“Paracos,” as the right wing-paramilitary groups are usually called in Colombia, emerged in the early 1980s when they were created by drug cartels in Medellín that had grown tired of extortion and kidnapping attempts by the FARC and wanted their own informal army to fight the guerrillas. But they quickly expanded, with financial support from landowners, business elites, and even politicians. In 1994, the government unveiled a program called “Convivir,” which legalized the right-wing “self-defense” groups and provided them with funding from the state and business groups. Although intended in theory to exclude illegal preexisting paramilitaries, in practice lines of legality were often blurred. The paramilitaries were incorporated into the army’s war against the guerrillas and attacked the FARC’s family members and civilian supporters, along with anyone else they suspected of having leftist political views. The AUC, a coalition of “self-defense” groups, became the largest of Colombia’s paramilitaries.

Drummond’s operations almost immediately became a target of the FARC, and the company’s security situation worsened when it opened the mine-to-port railroad line in 1996. The guerrillas regularly bombed the train tracks and in one incident kidnapped a train crew, Pablo Urrutia, Drummond Ltd.’s vice president of public affairs and communications, told The New Republic.

Ivan Otero, a lawyer who represented families of victims in the civil cases against Drummond in the United States with Terry Collingsworth of Washington-based International Rights Advocates, called the train track bombings “economically devastating for Drummond.” If the attacks continued, he said during a phone interview from his home in Valledupar, the company’s access to its maritime port would be cut off, and it wouldn’t be able to fulfill major foreign export contracts.

Combatants of the Catatumbo Bloc of the AUC paramilitary group took part in a 2004 demobilization ceremony.

Drummond officials and local politicians and business leaders in Cesar viewed the Sintramienergética union as a hotbed of FARC “militants.” Francisco Ramirez Cuellar, the former president of a union federation and a lawyer who assisted Otero and Collings­worth, believes Drummond turned to the AUC in response. “For Drummond and other big foreign mining companies in Colombia, repression and violence against unions is a standard part of the business model, because it helps them make more money,” he said. “It’s easy to get away with when the government doesn’t care about workers, which is usual in Colombia.”

The Murders

“Alabama Coal Giant Is Sued Over 3 Killings In Colombia,” ran the headline above a New York Times story on March 22, 2002. The lawsuit, which Collingsworth and Otero entered in federal court in Alabama on behalf of Sintramienergética and the families of Locarno, Orcasita, and Soler, was brought under the Alien Tort Statute, which they argued allows foreign citizens to seek civil damages in the United States for violations of international law. Union leaders and families of the dead asserted that Drummond executives “signaled paramilitary gunmen” that they wanted the three labor leaders killed, the story said. In Birmingham, where the Drummond family was “business royalty,” reaction to the lawsuit had been “disbelief.”

In 2007, a jury acquitted Drummond, and the next year the ruling was affirmed on appeal. A year later, the children of the slain men filed a similar lawsuit, which was dismissed in 2012. In 2011, Drummond filed a defamation lawsuit against Collings­worth and his law firm, and in 2015, the company filed a RICO lawsuit accusing Collingsworth, Otero, and several of their legal associates of criminally paying alleged witnesses to falsely implicate the company. “The defendants paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to these criminals, among other illegal inducements, in order to procure this ‘testimony,’” the latter lawsuit stated. The company discovered large payments had been made to a number of key witnesses shortly before they reversed their prior statements that exonerated Drummond of involvement in the assassination of the union leaders. Judge David Proctor, who had dismissed a second suit filed against Drummond by the victims’ families, issued an order that backed the company, writing, “There is (at least) probable cause to believe that Collingsworth … engaged in witness bribery and suborning perjury.”

Collingsworth and Otero countersued, saying Drummond was seeking to damage their reputations as part of an effort to cover up the company’s crimes in Colombia. They filed a new lawsuit on behalf of relatives of the murdered unionists as well. Regarding Drummond’s allegations of bribery, Collingsworth acknowledges making payments but says there was nothing improper about them, and that they were made to help witnesses pay their legal bills or went to family members of witnesses so they could be provided safe haven to protect them from potential retaliation by paramilitaries. “The AUC … is known to torture its victims and kill them in front of their parents or children,” he stated in an interview. “I’m proud of what we did.” He argued that it was hard to get a fair hearing from a court in Drummond’s home state of Alabama, and that Judge Proctor—who prior to his appointment by George W. Bush had cofounded a management-side employment law firm—was hostile to the plaintiffs from the outset.

From left: former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, longtime Drummond Co. president Garry Drummond (now deceased), and ex-Drummond Ltd. official Augusto Jimenez.
Drummond Watch Website/Facing South/The Institute for Southern Studies

The Colombian federal prosecutor’s office examined the bribery allegations and dismissed them. The indictment of the Drummond executives states that the payments the company classified as corrupt did not affect “the veracity of the statements” made by any witnesses, which had been independently verified by “copious testimonial, documentary and accounting evidence.” Furthermore, the indictment pointedly noted, witnesses against the company who received no help from Collingsworth and Otero for their legal fees or families also asserted that Drummond had financed the AUC.

Drummond’s lawsuit against Collingsworth and Otero and the pair’s countersuit are still pending, but there’s no telling when—or if—either will reach trial.

Drummond appeared to be even more bulletproof in Colombia, where lax mining laws have long worked to foreign companies’ advantage. Drummond has received a range of investment incentives that allowed it to rack up massive profits from its Colombian operations. On the rare occasions the government challenged the company, it did so timidly. Ten years ago, a barge operated by Drummond shipwrecked near Colombia’s greatest wetland and caused enormous environmental damage after it spilled tons of coal into the Caribbean. The company agreed to pay a $3.5 million fine, a paltry amount set against its profits.

In Colombia, meanwhile, the wheels of justice were not entirely halted. Between 2009 and 2013, three people were found guilty and sentenced to decades in prison for their roles in the murders of Orcasita and Locarno. Paramilitary commander Oscar José Ospino Pacheco, alias “Tolemaida,” ran the assassination squads; Jairo Jesus Charris Castro, a former AUC member who worked for the private security company Drummond hired to protect its facilities, helped plan it and, according to his own testimony, was given a kill list to deliver to Tolemaida; and Jaime Blanco Maya, a contractor who ran the company canteen, helped organize the murders. Blanco Maya and Charris Castro implicated Drummond—Tolemaida denied the company was involved—but the company’s culpability wasn’t weighed in court. The judges who sentenced Charris Castro and Blanco Maya both urged Colombia’s federal prosecutor to investigate Drummond’s role in the killings, but the requests led nowhere.

Finally, Some Movement

Then, in October 2018, Drummond’s legal situation grew slightly more precarious when a new federal prosecutor announced an investigation into the assassinations. The following year, Blanco Maya began cooperating with the JEP, hoping to have his prison sentence reduced. He had close ties to the AUC. He had been friends since childhood with Alfredo Araujo, a Drummond community liaison officer, and with a man named Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, better known as “Jorge 40,” who commanded the AUC’s Northern Bloc unit. Jorge 40 would be a particularly problematic character for Drummond to be associated with. His unit is believed to be responsible for hundreds of murders, as well as a number of massacres.

“Jorge 40” former leader of the Northern Bloc unit of the AUC paramilitary group.

In recent years, a stream of additional evidence pointing toward Drummond’s involvement in the murders has emerged. In 2020, the Colombian federal prosecutor’s office indicted Drummond Ltd.’s current president, José Miguel Linares, and his predecessor, Augusto Jimenez, who ran the company’s local operations between 1990 and 2012, alleging they engaged in a conspiracy to illegally fund and promote the AUC. An appeal bogged down the process, and it was only on May 31 that the federal prosecutor released a statement decreeing it would proceed with the prosecution, saying there is “abundant proof” the two Drummond executives conspired to finance the AUC. Prosecutors cited new evidence, including accounting statements from Drummond that showed the company paid Blanco Maya millions of dollars to run the canteen at its mines, which reinforced his testimony.

Other new information has been supplied by witnesses who testified before the JEP. Charris Castro told the court this year that the murders were directly ordered by company president Garry Drummond and several other company executives. He further alleged that Drummond established a direct relationship with the AUC, and that retired Colombian army generals and colonels on its payroll participated in the meetings where the murders were planned.

In mid-May, the JEP heard from Salvatore Mancuso, the AUC’s former leader, who had been extradited to the United States in 2008 to face drug trafficking charges and remains in U.S. custody. Mancuso offered damning testimony against Drummond Co., saying he could confirm that it was one of a number of U.S. companies that secretly financed the AUC; the list included Chiquita, Coca-Cola, and Dole. The companies have previously denied the accusation. In its indictment of the Drummond executives for the killings of the union leaders, the prosecutor’s office referred to systematic attacks by the AUC against the civilian population in Cesar province, including 3,382 victims—primarily social leaders in peasant villages—who were murdered, disappeared, kidnapped, or subjected to other types of violence. The AUC displaced tens of thousands and destroyed entire villages.

“The story in Colombia is the struggle for land; it goes back for hundreds of years,” Gonzalo Guillén Jiménez, a prominent journalist who has written about the Drummond case and made a documentary about coal mining in Colombia, said during an interview at his apartment in Bogotá. “It’s why there are indigenous people starving on the streets of Bogotá, but any talk of agrarian reform to benefit campesinos sparks talk of war.”

Drummond’s Power

The culture of La Loma is flavored with Caribbean touches, though it lies far from the sea. In the evenings, vallenato—Colombian folk music that heavily features the accordion—blasts from bars filled with workers downing bottles of beer and loudly singing along. In the mornings, bakeries fill with men carrying the helmets and wearing the uniforms of Drummond and other mining companies they work for. After drinking coffee and chatting amiably with friends, they board company buses to head to the mines for their shifts.

Drummond is the largest coal exporter in Colombia and has about 5,300 people on its permanent payroll and twice that number working as independent contractors, Drummond’s Pablo Urrutia told The New Republic. The company indirectly generates employment for another 55,000 people, who provide goods and services related to its mining operations, such as transportation, food supply, and shops that cater to miners and their families.

On a recent afternoon in September, Eduardo Sale sipped coffee at a small corner shop before heading out to a Drummond mine to begin the night shift, which he prefers. “Temperatures in the mine during the day can easily reach 50 degrees,” he said, which equates to about 122 degrees Fahrenheit. “I have had enough of that.” Sale earns $2,500 a month, a generous salary in a country where nearly half the labor force receives the minimum monthly wage of $325. “The pay is good,” he said. “This town wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Drummond.”

Drummond’s economic sway in the local region has created a variety of challenges that have made investigating a case against the company difficult. Witnesses and their families have “received threats against their lives … and been shunned in the communities where they live,” stated Otero, Collingsworth’s legal partner, who was careful to note the threats were made by former paramilitary fighters and criminals, not the coal company.

Drummond has built up so much economic and political power across Colombia that, in the eyes of lawyers for plaintiffs and supporters of the murdered union leaders, it has corrupted the judicial system. The company also hired former Colombian Attorney General Jaime Bernal Cuéllar as a defense lawyer, putting him in a good spot to pressure his former office—which oversees the federal prosecutor—to derail the current case. “The influence they have on the levers of power is enormous,” Otero said. But, he added, “this new case is moving quickly, and the evidence is overwhelming. Many of the families, for the first time in decades, have hope.”

The Mysterious Mr. Adkins

The man Drummond hired to run its entire security apparatus in Colombia was James Adkins, whom company officials met while attending a conference on terrorism in Miami. Adkins worked for a private security firm at the time but happily accepted Drummond’s offer to become its chief security officer. He moved to Cesar province in 1995. Adkins had the right profile for the job, though his past was not free of red flags that would have steered some companies away from employing him. Back in 1967, he joined the CIA and was sent to Laos after being trained in paramilitary operations. Adkins established a base near the border with North Vietnam and advised the CIA-organized “Secret Army” of Hmong tribesmen that fought on the U.S. side in the Vietnam War. He then moved over to the agency’s Western Hemisphere Division and served in the Dominican Republic and Panama before being transferred to Chile following the 1973 CIA-backed coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende and brought General Augusto Pinochet to power.

James Adkins, onetime CIA agent who was hired to head Drummond Ltd.’s security apparatus.
Public Domain/El Espectador

Adkins was subsequently transferred to Central America and during the mid-1980s was sent to Honduras to help run the Reagan administration’s covert wars against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and support for anti-Communist regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala. In 1987, he was pushed out of the CIA after Lawrence Walsh was appointed special counsel to lead the official probe into the Iran-Contra affair. In his final report, Walsh concluded that Adkins approved illegal weapons shipments to anti-Sandinista Contra rebels and lied to investigators about his actions.

None of this bothered Drummond. In fact, as Adkins said during a deposition taken years later for the Alabama court case, when he told company officials and a group of other security managers at the Miami conference about the circumstances of his departure from the CIA, they gave him a “standing ovation.” Adkins sent a stream of security reports to Drummond officials after his arrival in Cesar. In a September 1995 memo, he sent the encouraging news that army and paramilitary operations had been highly successful, noting that an AUC unit had kept guerrillas “at bay in an area that is critical to our railroad operations.” Narco-traffickers had also impeded rebel activity, Adkins wrote, but he added emphatically, “Make no mistake … it is the heavy military presence along the coast that has kept the guerrillas from making an appearance along the National Highway near our port since last March.”

Neither Adkins nor anyone from Drummond ever met with or financed the AUC, the company and the former CIA officer have maintained. Furthermore, Adkins had no direct knowledge of the paramilitary’s role in the murder of the labor leaders or that it was attacking union members or civilians. Drummond has pointed to a 1995 memo Adkins sent to a corporate executive saying the company should resist pressure from a Colombian military commander to provide financial support for Convivir, the 1994 plan that legalized right-wing “self-defense” groups. “Such a program will bring with it egregious human rights violations that preclude Drummond from ever participating,” he wrote. “We are better advised to keep our heads down and keep producing coal.”

However, Adkins’s and the company’s accounts have been contradicted by witnesses directly involved in events. Charris Castro, who was convicted in 2009 for playing a key role in the murders, told a U.S. court that he worked with El Tigre, the nom de guerre of an AUC commander, and Adkins to strengthen the AUC and help ensure the “successful security” of Drummond’s operations, and alleged that Garry Drummond asked that the AUC be brought in to “counteract or neutralize the activity and presence of the guerrilla.” That included, Charris Castro charged, sending financial support from the company to Jorge 40’s Northern Bloc around the same time it was committing “selective massacres” of civilians.

Charris Castro alleged in 2012 that Tolemaida, his ex-confederate who ran the assassination squads, assigned a fellow AUC commander called Adinael to carry out the murders of Locarno and Orcasita. On the day they were killed, he said, a retired military officer who worked for Adkins in Drummond’s security department contacted Adinael to tell him Orcasita and Locarno had finished their shifts, and Adkins got Charris Castro to confirm Adinael had the information.

The Man Who Flipped

Blanco Maya, who had his 37-year sentence reduced by two-thirds for his cooperation with the JEP, was released from prison in 2021 and is now in a witness protection program and lives outside of Bogotá with his family. Two round-the-clock armed guards provided by the JEP were present during a March interview over a lunch of chicken, rice, and plantains washed down with beer.

Adkins recruited him to run Drummond’s canteen for company workers after they met at a food supply operation he ran for employees of Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company that was working on the mine-to-port railroad, Blanco Maya said. “It was a difficult moment for Drummond,” Blanco Maya recounted of the period. “The railroad hadn’t opened, and Drummond was using trucks, which were easy for the guerrillas to attack.”

Colombian military units were stationed at mines, the port, and other Drummond facilities. Its security department gathered information about guerrilla operations in the area and provided it to army officials.

Drummond had a number of retired Colombian military officers directly on the payroll. General Rafael Peña Rios had been trained at the Pentagon’s notorious School of the Americas. In a 1988 interview with the newspaper El Tiempo, he bemoaned the fact that the army didn’t have complete control of Colombia, flatly asserted that the military should be a force of repression, and equated political opposition with guerrilla warfare. Lieutenant Colonel Julian Villate, another School of the Americas alumnus, was hired to oversee security operations at Drummond’s port. He had previously run Operation Dragon, a program that plotted the execution of more than 150 union leaders, human rights activists, and opposition political figures. Drummond hired Villate in 2005, the year after Operation Dragon was first exposed. In 2007, then-senator Gustavo Petro, who had been a leader in an effort to expose atrocities carried out by paramilitaries and the group’s ties to top government officials, told the media that the prosecutor’s office had revealed to him that Villate, who still worked for Drummond, was at the center of a plot to assassinate him. Drummond called the allegations “politically motivated.” Petro is now Colombia’s first leftist leader, winning the presidency during an election in June.

The message on this wall outside a Drummond mine reads, “Security is here. Live in security, too!”

Blanco Maya charged in our interview that Adkins picked up the money used in the initial payments he delivered to the AUC from Drummond’s Alabama headquarters and brought it back to Colombia in cash increments of $10,000. As this arrangement wasn’t very efficient, Adkins came up with the scheme for Blanco Maya to submit inflated invoices to Drummond and use the difference to pay the paramilitary group. Blanco Maya said in a 2011 written declaration that he delivered the cash directly to El Tigre, the AUC commander, at regularly scheduled meetings at a restaurant in an obscure rural area.

According to Blanco Maya, Adkins had the authority to operate as a “free agent,” but he didn’t do anything without the blessing of Drummond’s CEO. Adkins flew to Alabama after hatching the fake invoice scheme to go over the plan with Garry Drummond, and he signed off on it, Blanco Maya said during lunch. “The only person who told him what to do was Garry,” he said, “but whatever Adkins knew, Garry knew, too.”

Drummond has denied any involvement in the murders in court and public statements. When asked to comment on the current case in Colombia, a Drummond official who spoke to The New Republic stated they are prohibited from commenting on ongoing legal processes.

The New Republic was unable to reach Adkins, who is around 90 years old, but a close relative said he had been extremely ill for years and was unable to speak. Two other sources who know him confirmed he was in extremely poor health. During his deposition in the Alabama case and in past public statements, Adkins has vigorously denied playing any role in the assassination of the union leaders or having any knowledge of it.

Finally, the Trial May Be Coming

The federal prosecutor’s office hasn’t announced a trial date for the two Drummond executives, but it’s expected to begin this year or early next, unless the company can find a way to delay it. The murdered union officials’ supporters in Colombia are already worried about the possibility; in February, a number of groups monitoring the situation sent a letter to the prosecutor’s office accusing it of stalling and demanded that the prosecution move forward.

Whether any Drummond executives in the United States will face a judicial reckoning is impossible to know. The company’s longtime president, Garry Drummond, died in 2016. In December 2022, the prosecutor’s office notified the Justice Department that it was investigating Adkins for aggravated conspiracy and aggravated homicide, and it wanted to conduct a virtual interview with him on January 17. A Justice Department official replied that the agency would not be able “to facilitate the requested interview,” and Adkins did not contact the prosecutor to schedule one. His poor health would likely have precluded that, but even if he were not ill, it’s virtually inconceivable that Adkins would voluntarily submit to questioning in the case or that the U.S. government would compel a former CIA officer to provide testimony about his alleged involvement in crimes committed overseas. The prosecutor’s office still wants to interview him, however, and has issued an arrest order for Adkins, according to an October 19 story in the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador.

When the Justice Department charged Chiquita with financing paramilitaries during the civil war in Colombia back in the mid-2000s, the company argued that its payments to the AUC were made under duress and amounted to extortion. The Justice Department didn’t buy it, and in 2007 Chiquita pleaded guilty to “engaging in transactions with a specially designated global terrorist” and paid a $25 million fine.

Other U.S. multinationals exposed for having supported the AUC have made the same argument about having paid only under threat. But simply arguing that payment was demanded of it does not automatically exempt a company from liability, according to Kelsey Jost-Creegan, supervising attorney at Columbia Law School, who has studied the ties between foreign multinationals and paramilitaries in Colombia. “These companies choose to operate in regions where they know armed actors hold power, often using third parties to facilitate and provide legal distance from the consequences of their actions,” she said.

The Drummond case is potentially far more important than any that have come before. If it indeed moves forward, the Colombian federal prosecutor’s case against the Drummond executives would mark the first time that Drummond corporate officials have been brought to trial on criminal charges.

Joris van de Sandt of PAX, a Dutch peace organization that has researched the Drummond case for more than a decade, notes that corporations have often exacerbated armed conflict and facilitated war crimes, but they’re rarely held accountable. “There’s a lot of evidence against Drummond, and if it’s proven true in court, the company and its executives need to be held accountable and serve as an example and deterrent to other multinationals, especially in an age when private companies have become so huge and politically powerful,” he said. “It would also be important for victims and their families, who have the right to truth, justice, and reparations.”