Occidental Accused of Funding War Crimes

     LOS ANGELES (CN) - Occidental Petroleum Corp. gave millions of dollars to the Colombian army unit that carried out the cold-blooded murder of three union activists, while the Colombian government gave "perverse incentives" to its soldiers for killing "guerrillas," which "led to soldiers killing innocent civilians and then falsely reporting them as guerrilla combat deaths to gain rewards," the dead unionists' families say in Federal Court.
     In a federal complaint, 18 plaintiffs say that Los Angeles-based Occidental hired the Colombian National Army (CNA) to secure its Cano Limon oilfield - a joint venture with Colombia's state oil company, Ecopetrol - through a 2004 security agreement, as civil war raged between armed leftist groups on one side, including the FARC and ELN, and the Colombian army and right-wing death squads on the other.
     The plaintiffs say the army's 18th Brigade shot Jorge Prieto Chamucero, Hector Alirio Martinez and Leonel Goyeneche Goyeneche, union leaders and vocal opponents of the oil industry, outside Chamucero's home in Cano Seco, Arauca on the morning of Aug. 5, 2004.
     Colombian officials then falsely accused the men of ties to the ELN, the plaintiffs say.
     "Upon information and belief, Occidental directly provided the CNA with (or provided the CNA with the funds for) the helicopter used to move the decedents' bodies, the communications equipment used on the day of the attack, and other material support used by the 18th Brigade on the day of the attack," according to the complaint.
     "Occidental, through its participation in the 2004 Security Agreement, especially through monetary support, aid in kind, and its role on the coordination committee, supported the operations of the 18th Brigade and thus contributed to the decedents' deaths.
     "The deceased union leaders had been voices for an Araucan community that had been repressed by the Colombian state and caught in the crossfire of the civil war between the leftist guerillas and the CNA. The decedents constantly and effectively denounced the grave human rights violations being committed in their region. They paid for their activism with their lives."
     The Colombian army provided security to an "association" made up of Ecopetrol, Occidental and Spanish oil company Repsol, the plaintiffs say. Occidental's Colombian subsidiary, Oxy Colombia, committed roughly $3 million to the army under the agreement, an amount "so large that Occidental's U.S.-based leadership must have approved the 2004 Security Agreement," the complaint states.
     "The CNA, directly or indirectly (by supporting right-wing paramilitary groups), participated in numerous massacres of civilians and the disappearances, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and beatings of social protestors," the complaint states.
     "Philip Alston, the United Nations ('U.N.') Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, reported that the Colombian government acknowledged that there were 33 complaints in Arauca of homicides committed by the CNA between 2000 and 2008.
     "In addition to the general wave of state-sponsored violence in Colombia, the decedents' murders fit squarely into an especially gruesome category of CNA-committed murders: 'false positives.'
     "Beginning in the early 2000s, an alarming number of innocent civilians were executed by the CNA and then falsely accused of guerrilla ties, with the CNA frequently fabricating a scene or evidence to make it look like the innocent civilians died in combat.
     "This shocking practice became known simply as 'false positives,' and, according to Alston, 'began occurring with a disturbing frequency across Colombia from 2004.'
     "The 'false positive' practice stemmed from the Colombian government's offer of significant incentives to CNA soldiers for killing guerillas. These perverse incentives led to soldiers killing innocent civilians and then falsely reporting them as guerrilla combat deaths to gain rewards.
     "Despite irrefutable evidence of 'false positives' taking place, the Colombian government harassed and insulted human rights activists who sought to bring the practice to light.
     "Ex-president Alvaro Uribe called such activists 'spokespeople for terrorism' and then-Defense Minister and current President Juan Manuel Santos called 'false positive' allegations 'a pantomime with clear political intentions.'
     "The 'false positives' were a real phenomenon, however, and were common in Arauca.
     "The Colombian magazine Cambio reported that at least 31 cases of 'false positives' were under investigation in Arauca as of August 2009.
     "In Colombia as a whole, credible sources have placed the number of 'false positives' at more than 1,000.
     "The U.N. has correctly identified the executions of plaintiffs' decedents as prominent examples of 'false positives.'"
     The complaint cites the U.N.'s February 2005 "Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia."
     The families say the victims protested against the oil industry in Colombia, including Occidental's abandoned plan to drill on sacred land belonging to the indigenous U'Wa people. They say those protests gave Occidental "ample motive to approve of or ratify the CNA's August 2004 murders of the decedents."
     After the murders, the 18th Brigade moved the bodies to alter the crime scene, the families say. The army then "falsely claimed that the three union leaders attacked the military unit and therefore the unit was forced to open fire," and Colombian officials publicly stated that the three victims were ELN guerillas, the families say.
     "There has never been any credible evidence that any of plaintiffs' decedents were members of the ELN. It was a common practice of the military, as well as businesses, to falsely label effective union leaders as members of a guerrilla group so that they would be targeted for assassination by military or paramilitary groups," according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs seek $ damages for war crimes, extrajudicial killings, crimes against humanity, wrongful death, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, battery, assault, negligent hiring and supervision, and negligence. They are represented by David Grunwald.
     Neither Occidental nor the plaintiffs' law firm immediately responded to emailed requests for comment.