Drummond Ltd's head in Colombia threatens Colombian union leader

A mining union official testified that the head of Drummond Ltd. in Colombia threatened him after the killings of three labor leaders.

Juan Aguas Romero, the education secretary for two unions in the South American country, testified in the second day of a civil lawsuit accusing Drummond of having paramilitary gunmen kill the three men.

Drummond, a privately owned company based in Alabama, calls the slayings tragic but denies any involvement with the murders or with militias in Colombia.

Aguas said Augusto Jimenez, president of Drummond's operations in Colombia, made threatening comments during meetings that followed the gunshot killings of two union leaders in 2001 and the slaying of a third union official months later.

Once, Aguas said, Jimenez told him that a "fish that swims with its mouth opens soon dies." A former Drummond employee previously testified that Jimenez made a similar comment to him in a private discussion about union negotiations.

Jimenez, a Harvard University-educated lawyer, showed little reaction to the testimony by Aguas.

Speaking through a translator with Jimenez seated only a few feet away, Aguas testified in Spanish about being intimidated by the alleged remarks, which he took as threats.

"I felt fear," said Aquas.

Aguas is an official with the Colombian union Sintramienergetica, which is suing Drummond Ltd. along with the families of the dead men. He said he received bodyguards following meetings with Colombian government security officials after the killings.

Despite the protection, Aguas said, someone tried to kill him in October 2002. He said he remains on paid leave from his job at Drummond's huge mine in northern Colombia because of fears over security.

"I wanted to go back to work many times, but due to the lack of security situation I have been unable to return," he said.

The case is being tried under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which lets foreigners sue U.S. corporations for alleged wrongdoing abroad. U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre has ruled that the union and families must prove that the killings amounted to a war crime to prevail.

Attorneys involved in the civil trial say the case marks the first time a lawsuit filed against a U.S. company under the alien tort law has made it before jurors.

Human rights groups and labor have attempted to use the law over the last decade to hold U.S. companies accountable for alleged abuses overseas.