Gustavo Soler knew he was in trouble. It was 2001, and Soler was union president at a coal mine in Colombia owned by Drummond Co., which is controlled by the wealthiest family in Alabama.

Soler’s predecessor, Valmore Locarno, and Locarno’s deputy, Victor Orcasita, had been killed seven months earlier, and now Soler was getting threats, says his widow, Nubia, in an interview in Bogota. He told his family to pack up. They would leave the area as soon as he got home from the union office in Valledupar, a city in the country’s coal belt. He never made it.

Armed men stopped his bus, asked for him by name and abducted him. He was found under a pile of banana leaves with two bullet holes in his head, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its August issue.

After the killing, Nubia says, Garry Neil Drummond, chief executive officer of Drummond Co., sent a taxi to bring her to the Drummond offices near the coastal town of Santa Marta, where, in a meeting, he promised to put her children, Sergio and Karina, then 14 and 9, through school.

Nubia describes a tender moment for a tough man. Drummond, now 75, started working in his family’s coal mines around Jasper, Alabama, at 15. As an executive in 1969, he negotiated an export deal with a Japanese trading company and fulfilled the commitment by strip mining Alabama’s hills with colossal shovels and trucks. When those reserves dwindled, Drummond Co. opened its first mine in Colombia in 1995. It came under attack from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group that had been at war with the government since the 1960s.

Multiple Challenges

Nubia says Garry Neil, as he’s known, didn’t make good on his tuition promise. “He never paid for a pencil,” she says.

Drummond declined to comment on the matter. Nor did he answer a list of questions sent to spokesman Steve Bradley of Stephen Bradley & Associates LLC.

Drummond and his company face a barge load of challenges, starting with a possible strike by its Colombian workers after more than a month of wage talks ended July 7 with management and union leaders failing to reach an agreement.

Then there is the price of thermal coal, which is burned to produce electricity and which Drummond mines in Colombia. Its price has fallen 29 percent since Jan. 1, 2011, closing yesterday at $56.46 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Electric utilities have cut their use of coal to fire power plants, switching to cheaper natural gas. Just 37 percent of U.S. electricity came from coal last year, down from 50 percent in 2005. On July 9, Drummond told the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs that it planned to cut up to 425 workers at its Shoal Creek mine starting in September because declining coal prices.