We took Damien's numbers and multiplied them by the thousands of trips per year that Bralima runs through eastern Congo's rebel-held regions. Extrapolating from Bralima's DRC market share and per capita rates of beer consumption elsewhere in rural Africa, we estimate that approximately 16 million bottles of Bralima beer, or about 2,000 transport vehicles' worth, must pass through checkpoints each year. Assuming, based on our low-end estimates, that these trucks are fortunate enough to be stopped only once per journey at the dozens of blockades along the region's few transport links, manned not only by M23 but also other road and river rebel sentries, Bralima distributors could be paying upward of $1 million a year to rebel groups.
When we presented Heineken with our figure this summer, John-Paul Schuirink, financial communications manager, said that due to the complexity of the situation in the DRC and the use of local distributors, the amount and the payments were difficult for Heineken to verify. But Schuirink said that in response to Foreign Policy's inquiry, the company was in the process of investigating and, as a precaution, had "immediately suspended all payment of third party distributor invoices in the area." Schuirink also noted in an email that "this area represents far less than 1% of our total volume in the DRC and that the vast majority of our deliveries in the area are outside of the territories that are under the influence of M23."
Bralima outsources its distribution to local independent operators, a common way for corporations working in militia- or cartel-controlled zones to keep space between themselves and the road. Heineken has denied that it uses local distributors to immunize the company, pointing out that it operated this way for decades before the rebels occupied the area. But the structure has certainly allowed Bralima to keep running in the east as warlords have come and gone.
Bralima had breweries in cities under control of the rebel group RCD-Goma during its occupation of eastern Congo between 1998 and 2003, explained Jason Stearns, who in 2008 headed the U.N. Expert Group on Congo, conducting a special investigation into violence in the country's east. "So the choice they would have had at that point -- and that any local businessman had at that point -- was to disengage and to leave and stop business, or to continue," Stearns said. Bralima's decision, along with those of other companies that continued to operate in the region, was extensively documented in the "Lutundula Report," the Congolese parliament's 2005 assessment of conflict profiteering. Although the widespread payments to rebels are common knowledge, the Congolese government hasn't followed up the Lutundula Report with further investigations, and business has proceeded as usual ever since. "It's not just Bralima that continued, but it's every single Congolese company in the country," Stearns said.
Given beer's almost mythical status in Congo, shutting down Bralima in the east, though it could dry up some funds going to M23, would do little beyond driving up prices and encouraging smuggling. (Last year, a logistical problem disrupted the flow of beer in Goma for just under two weeks, leading to a 50-cent increase per bottle, according to members of Bralima's distribution staff, who said that thousands of Congolese took to the streets to riot throughout the city. As locals say: "You can bomb a hospital, but not Bralima!") Beer trafficking would potentially provide an even more lucrative source of income for rebel groups than the blockades do today. Imagine Prohibition-era Chicago, transposed onto one of the planet's least stable regions.
The international community has placed some checks on companies that do business, either directly or indirectly, with the rebels. U.S. Executive Order 13413, a 2006 directive, penalizes any American corporation or its subsidiary found "to have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support" to any anti-government militants operating in the DRC. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1493, adopted in 2003, also sanctions assistance to rebel groups in the region. But the sanctions are extremely difficult to enforce, especially given that most companies in eastern Congo work with local partners. Stearns, whose experts group had a role in monitoring violations of U.N. sanctions, said, "We were able to prove that individuals and small local companies were liable, but while companies above them in the supply chain were morally negligent, it is often far more difficult to prove legal liability." Despite all best efforts, in a place like eastern Congo, once a corporation goes in, it can become difficult for anyone -- whether local governments, international observers, or far-flung corporate executives -- to control exactly what goes on there.
ACCORDING TO MALANDA, Bralima's communications manager, his bosses back in Amsterdam don't care much about how he makes money -- so long as it gets made. "For Heineken, what matters is our sales goals. If we make them, all is good. If not, big trouble!" Malanda said, laughing as he pretended to beat us with an imaginary stick. (Schuirink told us, "We do not recognize, nor condone these statements.")