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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Occidental Averts Suit Over Colombian Killings

(CN) - Because of millions that the United States gave to Colombia's army, the families of slain union leaders cannot go after Occidental as one of the brigade's alleged private supporters, the 9th Circuit ruled.

Relatives of three union Colombian leaders killed in August 2004 sued Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. in 2011, alleging it gave millions of dollars to the Colombian army unit that carried out the killings.

Since soldiers allegedly received "perverse incentives" from the Colombian government for killing "guerrillas," the army was prone to killing innocent civilians and falsely reporting them as guerrilla-combat deaths, according to the complaint.

The 18 plaintiffs say Occidental hired the Colombian National Army in 2004 to secure its Cano Limon oilfield - a joint venture with Colombia's state oil company, Ecopetrol - while armed leftist groups fought the Colombian army and right-wing death squads.

Jorge Prieto Chamucero, Hector Alirio Martinez and Leonel Goyeneche Goyeneche, union leaders and vocal opponents of the oil industry, died at the hands of the army's 18th Brigade on the morning of Aug. 5, 2004, outside Chamucero's home in Cano Seco, Arauca, according to the complaint.

Their families claim that the brigade moved the bodies to alter the crime scene, and Colombian officials falsely accused the men of ties to the National Liberation Army.

A federal judge in Los Angeles dismissed the action, however, after finding that the plaintiffs failed to show Occidental was any more liable than the "political branches."

Indeed, the claims are inextricably bound to the $99 million worth of training that United States provided to the 18th Brigade for the same reason Occidental allegedly gave it $6.3 million, the ruling states.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit affirmed the dismissal Monday.

"The United States' provision of $99 million to the CNA - more than 15 times what Occidental contributed (through [its Columbian subsidiary, Occidental de Colombia Inc.] Oxycol and Ecopetrol) - evidences the United States' support of the 18th Brigade's efforts to secure the pipeline," the unsigned ruling states, abbreviating Colombian National Army.

Claims that Occidental controlled the 18th Brigade failed to sway the court.

"On this record, the notion that the CNA ceded control of the 18th Brigade to a Delaware corporation with headquarters in the United States is utterly fanciful," the ruling states. "In other words, even accepting plaintiffs' factual allegations, they fail to support a 'reasonable inference' that Occidental through its funding had any control over the operations of the 18th Brigade, or that Occidental's 'control,' whatever it was, can be distinguished from the United States' 'control' over the 18th Brigade."

Though the United States did not submit a statement of interest in the case, the panel brushed aside claims that such inaction shows a lack of conflict.

"The United States' funding, training, and oversight of the 18th Brigade was so obvious as to make a formal statement unnecessary," the court ruled. "The facts of this case simply cannot be framed in such a way that severs the tie between the United States' and Occidental's funding of the CNA and the 18th Brigade."

The ruling continues: "Congress and the president determined that economic and military aid and training to Colombia and to the 18th Brigade of the CNA was necessary and appropriate. We cannot adjudicate plaintiffs' claims without inquiring into or passing judgment on those political decisions. Any verdict or judgment in favor of plaintiffs would necessarily conflict with and denounce our government's official actions."

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