For lawyer Terry Collingwood, capital punishment has its place, especially if it means “the death of a truly evil corporation.” The reference was to Ohio-based Chiquita Corp., which last March pleaded guilty to making 100 payments over seven years totaling $1.7 million to the right-wing, paramilitary Colombian Self Defense Units — AUC in Spanish. The payoffs began in 1997. Observers say the aim was to suppress labor activism, bar left-wing insurgents and control territory.

Rights groups blame the AUC for killing 10,000 Colombians over a period of 10 years and for seizing massive amounts of its victims’ land, displacing and impoverishing tens of thousands of the victims’ family members in the process.

According to Colombian police statistics, the AUC accounted for most of the 2,700 murders in the Uraba banana-growing region between 1997 and 2004. That area provided Chiquita subsidiary Banadex with $49.4 million in profits during 2001-2004, according to

Collingwood and legal associate Paul Wolf filed a civil lawsuit in June on behalf of the families of 137 victims. Wolf reported Dec. 12 that Chiquita lawyers have submitted a “motion to dismiss.” He predicts that if Judge Paul Friedman turns them down, “there’s little doubt we’ll win.” Wolf has gone to Uraba to identify victims and recruit potential plaintiffs, who now number over 800.

Chiquita is facing at least five new lawsuits since it agreed in March to pay a $25 million fine related to the AUC payoffs in exchange for getting assurances of immunity from prosecution for its executives. Chiquita’s own lawyers informed company officials in February 2003 that under anti-terrorist legislation, Chiquita’s AUC payments were illegal, especially after 2002 when the AUC received its terrorist designation. Payments continued until Feb. 4, 2004.

Chiquita contends the payments were aimed at protecting employees from “extortion.” Victims’ lawyers say the AUC not only killed students, unionists and peasants allegedly associated with left-wing insurgents, but also seized land for the Chiquita empire and arranged for thousands of automatic weapons plus ammunition to pass across Chiquita docks at the northwestern port city of Turbo. The AUC had gained control of the area after expelling the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during the 1990s.

On June 14, attorneys for relatives of 22 people killed by paramilitaries filed a civil suit in Florida. A month later, EarthRights International filed a class-action lawsuit against Chiquita in New Jersey. According to legal director Marco Simons, “Chiquita’s involvement violates not only Colombian law and U.S. law, but also international law prohibiting crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes.” Chiquita was “an accomplice to a criminal conspiracy,” he told Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now.”

In November, Jonathan Reiter filed suit against Chiquita in New York on behalf of families of 393 murdered victims. Each group of relatives is demanding $20 million in compensatory and punitive damages for “terrorism, war crimes and wrongful death.” Reiter told Goodman that “when you put money into the hands of terrorists, when you put guns into the hands of terrorists, then you are legally responsible for the atrocities, the murders and the tortures which those terrorists commit.”

In its capacity as a Chiquita stockholder, the Service Employees International Union sued the corporation’s board of directors on Dec. 14 for having “instituted a corporate culture that encouraged unlawful and irresponsible activity.” Analysts say that stockholders have good reason to fear that burgeoning legal assaults threaten the company’s solvency.

The Chiquita case exemplifies U.S. government sensitivity to corporate priorities. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, then head of the Justice Department’s criminal investigation division, headed a team that met with Chiquita board members on April 24, 2003, to discuss the AUC payments. Regarding the matter as “complicated,” he promised further study, according to the Washington Post. Payoffs continued.

Board member Roderick Hills, once Securities and Exchange Commission head and Chertoff’s former law partner, was present.

In Colombia, after the deal was announced in March, Attorney General Mario Iguaran demanded the extradition of eight Chiquita officials. But under the U.S.-Chiquita deal, names remain secret. Observers suggest that extradition is unlikely, given the AUC’s tight connections with Colombia’s political establishment and President Alvaro Uribe’s dependence on the Bush administration.

For Terry Collingsworth, “This is a landmark case, maybe the biggest terrorism case in history. In terms of casualties, it’s the size of three World Trade Center attacks.” Paul Wolf adds, “Chiquita’s victims are living in dire poverty.”