Coca-Cola faces new violence claims in Guatemala

The case draws together a coalition of lawyers and activists who participated in previous legal battles against Coca-Cola centering on its labor practices in Colombia. The lead attorney is Terry Collingsworth, who has pushed lawsuits against Coca-Cola for a decade. The unofficial public relations wing is the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, one of the company's most aggressive and vociferous foes.

Latin America has been the site of some of the most controversial claims surrounding Coca-Cola, which denies involvement in any wrongdoing -- including squashing labor unions in Colombia -- and has generally defended itself successfully in court cases. The company says, for example, that two different judicial inquiries in Colombia found no evidence that management at Coke's bottlers conspired to intimidate or threaten trade unionists.

The case filed Thursday in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan accuses Coca-Cola of using an offer of protection for the family of plaintiff Jose Armando Palacios to try to get him to waive his employment rights at a Guatemala City instant coffee- and Coca-Cola processing facility owned by Industria de Cafe, or Incasa.

Palacios was a union leader until 1991, but he was forced to resign from the union when he took a job as an in-house security guard, according to the lawsuit. In 2004, he re-joined the plant's union.

According to the lawsuit, Palacios was shot at and threatened at work. Armed men broke into his home and pointed guns at his family. A man who looked like him and drove a similar-color car was shot in front of his house, according to the lawsuit. Palacios fled to the United States in 2006; his family followed later.

The suit accuses Coca-Cola of not acting to stop violence against union leaders at Incasa, its Guatemalan bottler. In 2008, according to the suit, four armed men murdered the son and nephew of Jose Alberto Vicente Chavez and raped his 16-year-old daughter. One assailant was killed by Guatemalan security forces; the others were tried and convicted, according to the suit, though it was not clear if that conviction established that the crime was union-related.

One of the current case's central contentions is that Coca-Cola had notice of the dangerous conditions for union activists at the Guatemalan facilities both before and after the Palacios violence.

"We maintain there is no truth in these allegations," said Coca-Cola spokeswoman Angela Harrell. "The fact of the matter is, we haven’t been involved. No knowledge of the violence, no involvement in the violence."

The plaintiffs say they brought the case in New York because the Guatemalan court system is corrupt. Coca-Cola called the tactic "forum-shopping" and a "misuse of the U.S. judicial system." The company may answer the complaint or file a motion to have it thrown out or moved to Guatemala. The plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages.

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