And so, as Goizueta promised annual earnings growth of 15 to 20 percent per year and the company pushed into new markets, the foundation of Coke's many controversies was laid. Blanding's book gains momentum in its second half, as the vaguely academic tone of his library-fueled early chapters gives way to firsthand accounts of real places and real people: the fruits of time spent on the road and asking questions. In the Mexican town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, an elderly woman who sells fried snacks to schoolchildren explains how local springs dried up after a bottling plant arrived. Among the sugarcane fields and water buffaloes of the Indian village of Mehdiganj, Blanding hears a similar narrative. And in Carepa, Colombia, Blanding asks Hernán Manco, former president of the union at Bebidas y Alimientos de Urabá, whether he ever drinks Coke anymore. "No, we do not drink Coca-Cola," he replies. "Coca-Cola is death."
NEXT: How much truth is behind the allegations?
In the case of water depletion, it is hard to untangle allegations from reality. Coke likes to point out that its bottlers use tiny fractions of total regional water supplies. Other factors, like variation in rainfall from year to year and heavy watering by local farmers, make it next to impossible to distinguish correlation from causation. (Nonetheless, Blanding does find a director of an India-based nonprofit who convincingly discredits Coke's "rainwater harvesting" initiatives, which the company claims offset its water use in the country entirely.) Coke's arguments about the killings in Colombia, however, are not quite as persuasive.
Poster created by The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke.
Was the Coca-Cola Company to blame for the deaths? This is the question with which Blanding ultimately grapples. The Coke Machine's final chapters chronicle the efforts of the union and two labor lawyers to sue Coca-Cola, and also describe the union-backed Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, a splashy, Saul Alinsky-style crusade to publicize the murders that was masterminded by self-described "corporate thug buster" Ray Rogers. (At Coke's 2004 shareholder meeting, Rogers was tackled and thrown to the ground by four security guards after accusing CEO Doug Daft of lying about the situation in Colombia.) Blanding's description is nuanced, with twists and turns as the lawsuit proceeds and facts are unearthed. But his final finding is uncomplicated: "Barring some sensational testimony from a demobilized paramilitary commander, it's unlikely we'll ever know what connections, if any, Coke's Colombian bottlers—much less Coke Atlanta—had to the murders."
Undeterred, Blanding doesn't let Coke off the hook. By the end of The Coke Machine, the company still looks tainted, mostly by its fierce attempts to keep whatever facts exist, incriminating or not, from surfacing. After Rogers was tackled at the shareholder meeting, his movement, fueled largely by college students, continued to swell: Many schools, including New York University and the University of Michigan, would eventually threaten to terminate (and in some cases, actually terminate) their contracts with the company. In 2004, Coke general counsel Deval Patrick pledged to commission an independent investigation of what happened in Colombia—but the idea was shot down, and Patrick, now better known as the governor of Massachusetts, resigned.