Here is a new dispatch from contributor Chris Stubbert in Bogotá.
On January 17, a small truck packed with over 660 pounds of explosives brazenly entered a new Nestlé dairy refrigeration plant in the town of Doncello in the department of Caquetá, a zone of strong guerrilla influence more than 200 miles south of Bogotá. After parking the truck strategically next to the milk processing tanks, the driver ran away and screamed something about a bomb, while a motor bike waited to pick him up outside the main gates. Seconds later the truck exploded, destroying the entire factory. Fortunately no one was killed, but a contracted engineer was seriously injured, losing an arm in the explosion.
For over 32 years the Swiss multinational had never had serious problems with Colombia’s violent groups. Everyone within the company was shocked to hear of this attack. Nestlé is the only multinational operating in this poor and neglected department (which USAID had recently abandoned due to the region’s prevalent connection to narcoterrorism and insecurity), providing a buyer for the local farming community. The destroyed plant had collected 45,000 liters of milk (11,890 gallons) daily from local farmers. Nestlé has blamed the FARC and is now considering whether to pull its operations from Caquetá.
Why did Nestlé’s relative calm in Colombia come to an end? Company officials to whom I’ve spoken claim that the FARC had been demanding "boleteo" – in plain English, extortion. Nestlé had not given in to their demands.
It has been common practice for companies operating in Colombia’s conflict zones to pay protection or transportation taxes to AUC paramilitaries, ELN, and FARC guerrillas. Companies that refuse assume great risks. This unfortunate reality is rarely discussed outside Colombia. The business of "cooperation" with armed militias could be very damaging to corporate images.
Nestlé has consistently refused this type of demand in the past and I expect their strategy will remain in place. They will most likely not bow to the intimidation of the FARC since, once a precedent is set, it would be difficult to refuse a second time and so on. Despite this stubborn stance, I fear that simply moving operations out of Caquetá, a recent public contemplation, could send the message that extorting forces have defeated a large company. Not to mention the political-economic fallout that would further damage the image of Uribe’s ‘democratic security plan’.
After the attack, Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos and National Police officials met with top Nestle officials at the company’s Bogotá headquarters. Santos was pressed with questions about why an army post had recently been removed from the area – part of the zone where the U.S.-funded "Plan Patriota" military offensive had taken place between 2004 and 2006. Maybe his cousin, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, will be the next to be peppered with questions about this decision.
As these damage control sessions were taking place in Bogotá, back at company HQ in Switzerland, the brass were livid. Maybe Nestlé will pressure the Swiss government into recognizing FARC as a terrorist group.
Why has FARC decided to act now against Nestlé? Recently they had been transmitting messages through local community members demanding that Nestlé pay up. Maybe the violent approach was their final warning. Intimidation has long been a tactic used by Colombian groups to gain power, territory and resources. On the other hand it could be a sign of outright desperation on the part of FARC.
The tragedy of this situation, which may play out in the coming weeks, will not be a serious detriment to a giant like Nestlé, but rather to the hundreds of farmers who have relied on this company to buy their milk and provide income to their families in Caquetá for over 32 years. This is yet another example of the true cost of Colombia’s protracted armed conflict. The impoverished civilian population continues to be the real casualty.