Revelations of ties between the Chiquita Brands International, based in Cincinnati, and right-wing terrorist groups in Colombia highlight corporate crimes and swagger in a country rife with suffering. They also show Washington’s hypocrisy regarding terrorism.
Chiquita, formerly United Fruit, operates in 70 countries, employs 25,000 people, and last year grossed $4.5 billion.
Banadex, Chiquita’s banana-producing subsidiary before it was sold in 2004, made Colombia the company’s leading regional source of profits. In the process, Chiquita chose to support the right-wing United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), widely credited for murdering over 10,000 political activists and peasants over 10 years and processing 90 percent of Colombia’s narcotics exports.
From 1997 to 2004, AUC forces killed 2,700 people in the four northern municipalities where Chiquita operations were centered. The reign of terror caused the displacement of thousands of peasants.
On Sept. 10, 2001, the U.S. government designated the AUC as a terrorist organization. In March 2007, Chiquita and the U.S. Justice Department struck a bargain under which Chiquita acknowledged $1.7 million in payments to the AUC from 1997 through 2004 and agreed to pay a $25 million fine.
Chiquita officials had self-reported the crime in April 2003, its openness having been called into question by concurrent revelations from the Organization of American States not only of the payments, but also of the AUC having taken delivery of 3,000 automatic weapons and 2.5 million bullets at a Chiquita private port.
Chiquita and possibly the U.S. government are proceeding now down a slippery slope. Six congresspersons wrote Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in May quizzing him about the U.S. response to other companies in Colombia associated with AUC terrorists. He has not responded.
On June 28, Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) held a hearing, and promised more, into U.S. corporate complicity with terror in Colombia, particularly the killings of union leaders. Commenting on the Chiquita case, he told reporters, “I think they have escaped any kind of appropriate sanctions.”
In Colombia, Attorney General Mario Iguaran has launched an investigation into the Chiquita payoffs, which he said pointed to a “criminal relationship” between the company and the AUC, and not, as the company claims, a case of its having been victimized by AUC extortion. Iguaran hinted that requests for the extradition of eight Chiquita executives may be in the works.
Chiquita also faces civil suits on behalf of Colombian victims. One was launched June 14 in Florida. Another lawsuit, brought by 173 victims’ family members, was announced June 7 in Washington. Attorney Terry Collingsworth envisions thousands more joining that class action litigation, “the biggest terrorism case in history,” he said.
Speaking on Democracy Now, Mario Simon, lawyer with EarthRights International, explored the case brought by six Colombian plaintiffs in New Jersey on July 19. “Chiquita,” he asserted, is “engaged in a criminal conspiracy with the paramilitary organizations to control the banana-growing region of Colombia. [Chiquita used] the paramilitaries to maintain a social and political stability within this region.”
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth has agreed to wait until October before deciding upon the Chiquita-Justice Department pact announced in March, giving leeway for federal prosecutors to decide whether or not to indict Chiquita executives. Reportedly, their investigation has extended to possible wrongdoing by federal officials, notably Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
As head of the Justice Department’s criminal investigation division at the time, on April 24, 2003, Chertoff and his team listened to confessions that day from Roderick Hills of Chiquita’s board of directors, and other executives, regarding company funding of the AUC. Hills, formerly head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, had been Chertoff’s law partner.
Hills claimed, according to the Aug. 2 Washington Post, that if Chiquita stopped the payments, his company would have to leave Colombia, thereby possibly harming U.S. security interests.
Chertoff apparently agreed that the situation was “complicated” and promised to advise Chiquita further after conferring with high Bush administration officials. Neither Chertoff nor his successor Larry Thompson communicated with Chiquita again. Chertoff left the Justice Department in June 2003 for a federal judgeship, and became head of Homeland Security in 2005.
Chiquita continued the illegal payments until March 2004 with the knowledge and possible blessing of the Justice Department. Company executives learned about the payments in September 2000 and about the AUC terrorist designation in early 2002. An outside lawyer advised company directors in February 2003 that Chiquita “must stop payments.”