A surprise witness has surfaced in a federal lawsuit scheduled to begin in July against a private Alabama-based coal company that allegedly colluded with a right-wing paramilitary group to murder union leaders in Colombia.

Attorneys suing the Drummond Co. of Birmingham, Ala. this week filed legal documents revealing they have found a new witness who claims the company supplied and directed the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the Birmingham News reports:

Edwin Manuel Guzman was a sergeant in the Colombian Army and is now in that country's witness protection program, according to a motion filed in U.S. District Court in Birmingham.

Guzman, the filings said, served in a Colombian army unit that helped guard Drummond's coal mine and rail lines. He is prepared to testify that he saw the Birmingham-based company supply a right-wing armed outlaw group and direct its military activities.

Because the trial is scheduled to begin so soon, the judge in the case will have to grant special permission for Guzman to testify.

Filed in 2002 by the Colombian trade union Sintramienergetica and the estates of murdered union leaders Valmore Lacarno Rodriquez, Victor Hugo Orcasita Amaya and Gustavo Soler Mora, the lawsuit was brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act, Torture Victim Protection Act and state tort law. It alleges that Drummond "hired, contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced" leaders of the union representing workers at Drummond facilities in Colombia. The murders occurred while contract negotiations with Drummond were underway.

The lawsuit does not name the actual killers but claims the company directed the murders. Drummond relocated much of its Alabama coal operations to civil war-wracked Colombia in the 1980s, resulting in layoffs for some 2,000 United Mine Workers of America members. More than 1,900 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia since 1991, according to the peace group Drummond Watch.

Drummond denies any involvement with illegal groups or the trade unionists' deaths. In a statement released last month, the company reported that it filed slander and defamation charges against Rafael Garcia, a former officer with Colombia's federal police who has claimed he saw Augusto Jimenez -- Drummond's former top executive in Colombia -- give $200,000 in cash to the leader of a right-wing paramilitary.

Colombia is not the only country where trade unionists face the risk of extreme violence. As Facing South reported last week, the tied and beaten corpse of Farm Labor Organizing Committee leader Santiago Rafael Cruz was found earlier this month in the union's Mexico-based office in Monterrey. Labor leaders, politicians and human rights groups are urging Mexican police to consider political motives in their investigation of his death.