The Coca-Cola Company has long marketed itself as being synonymous with American values. However, after a recent complaint filed in the New York Supreme Court alleging they had knowledge of and sought to cover up acts of murder, rape, and attempted murder at a Guatemalan subsidiary, "America's Real Choice" may now have to face up to American justice.
The case Jose Armand Palacios v. The Coca-Cola Co. (102514/2010) has been filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act and alleges that a subsidiary of Coca-Cola based in Guatemala City, INCASA, engaged in terror tactics against the families of Palacios and Jose Alberto Vicente Chavez because of their union activities. The plaintiffs allege that they were targeted with the full knowledge and support of company officials in Atlanta.
According to the case filed on February 25 (court document here):
Coke was directly involved in assisting its agent, INCASA, to achieve its goal of terminating Mr. Palacios for his union activities. Indeed, Coke was bargaining over the security of Mr. Palacios and his family as a way to get him to waive his right to employment and reinstatement. Mr. Palacios was nearly executed on January 28, 2006, the day after he declined again Coke's offer to give him security if he would waive his right to reinstatement. Coke shared the goal of its agent, INCASA, to get rid of Mr. Palacios, and weaken the union.
The court filing goes on to point out that the U.S. State Department has documented "a significant increase in the number of killings of trade union activists and their family members." It further states that the plaintiffs were subjected to violence and threats by local managers, that Vicente's son was murdered, and his daughter was gang-raped "as part of a campaign of violence directed at her father."
Coca-Cola has admitted that they are owners of the company but deny any knowledge or involvement with these crimes. A Coca-Cola spokesperson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
We maintain there is no truth in these allegations. . .The fact of the matter is, we haven't been involved. No knowledge of the violence, no involvement in the violence.
The company went on to condemn the plaintiffs in this case for "forum-shopping" and claimed that bringing the suit under the Alien Tort Claims Act was a "misuse of the U.S. judicial system." Whether or not Coca-Cola was directly involved in these crimes is something that will be decided by the court. However, their assertion that trying this case in a US courtroom would be a misuse of our nation's judicial system is demonstrably false.
The Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) is among the oldest legal precedents in our nation's history and was passed as part of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Presumably, ATCA was intended to assure foreign governments that the newly formed Republic had a mechanism to provide redress for any breaches of international law. While it was only used sparingly for nearly 200 years, it has more recently become an important tool for international human rights law.
In 1980 ATCA experienced a resurgence when two Paraguayan citizens, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, brought suit against a former Paraguayan police chief, Americo Norberto Pena-Irala, who was then living in the United States. Dolly Filartiga brought the suit along with her father and charged that Pena ordered her brother "kidnapped and tortured to death" because of his father's political activity. The court agreed to hear the case and their decision in favor of the Filartigas should inspire anyone who still wants to believe that the United States can be a moral leader among nations:
In the modern age, humanitarian and practical considerations have combined to lead the nations of the world to recognize that respect for fundamental human rights is in their individual and collective interest. Among the rights universally proclaimed by all nations, as we have noted, is the right to be free of physical torture. Indeed, for purposes of civil liability, the torturer has become like the pirate and slave trader before him hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind. Our holding today, giving effect to a jurisdictional provision enacted by our First Congress, is a small but important step in the fulfillment of the ageless dream to free all people from brutal violence.
Since Filartiga v. Pena-Irala there have been several high-profile cases utilizing ACTA to address international human rights cases in US courts. These include Burmese villagers who filed suit against Unocal for using forced labor on their Yadana gas pipeline project, a Chinese dissident who sued Yahoo! for helping Chinese authorities block access to his online mailing list and providing them with his personal information so he could be arrested, the successful prosecution of "Chuckie" Taylor (the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor) on multiple counts of torture and conspiracy to torture, and a suit by Nigerian citizens against Shell Oil for the murder of nine political activists, including the author Ken Saro-Wiwa.
The suit against Coca-Cola is merely the latest case to follow this legal procedure. For Coca-Cola to deny the court's jurisdiction in this matter is to ignore a long history of established precedent. However, given the allegations and the company's history of being directly involved in the affairs of their subsidiaries, it's understandable that Coca-Cola would seek to question the legitimacy of the suit against them.
According to the complaint, in a March 15, 2005 agreement with the International Union of Food Workers (reaffirmed on January 31, 2006) the Director of Global Labor Relations for Coca-Cola stated unambiguously that:
Coca-Cola acknowledges that Coca-Cola workers are allowed to exercise rights to union membership and collective bargaining without pressure or interference. Such rights are exercised without fear of retaliation, repression, or any other form of discrimination.
The agreement was signed because of "persistent and severe violations of labor and union rights by the bottler INCASA." This would suggest that Coca-Cola was fully aware of the violence ten months prior to the attempted murder of Jose Palacious. If they knew about the actions being taken against union organizers at the same time they were making these public declarations, Coca-Cola will have a great deal to answer for. As events unfold the company may find out that "The Coke Side of Life" is on the wrong side of the law.
Update: The history of Coca-Cola's role in the over-exploitation and contamination of water in India is discussed at The Primate Diaries:
To make matters worse, the bottling plant was producing thousands of gallons of toxic sludge and, as the BBC reported, disposed of it by selling the carcinogenic material to local farmers as "fertilizer." High levels of pesticides were also reportedly found in the soft drink produced in the region leading to bans across the country. According to The Guardian, some Indian farmers even chose to spray their fields with Coca-Cola rather than use the more expensive pesticides from Monsanto.