US court finds banana giant Chiquita liable for financing Colombian paramilitaries

A Florida jury ordered the company to pay US$38.3 million to the families of eight men killed by paramilitaries

This story was originally published on Pirate Wire Services

In a landmark ruling, a U.S. jury in Miami has found banana giant Chiquita Brands International liable for financing the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a brutal paramilitary death squad that was declared a terrorist organization by the United States during Colombia’s civil war.

Chiquita must pay US$38.3 million to the families of eight men killed by the AUC, the jury said. The company plans to appeal the verdict.

“Further litigation is underway. Chiquita has a right to appeal, and no money is changing hands immediately,” said Marco Simons, general counsel with environmental and corporate accountability nonprofit EarthRights International, which represented the plaintiffs.

“Ultimately thousands of family members of victims have filed suit against Chiquita, and this is an ongoing process. We hope that this win will pave the way for compensation and adequate remedies for all plaintiffs.”

The case is just one of hundreds of cases filed against Chiquita, involving thousands of victims. Jurors ruled that Chiquita is liable for damages and suffering incurred by Colombian victims in this case. After 17 years of legal proceedings, these are the first victims and families to have obtained justice.

In 2007, Chiquita was fined US$25 million in a settlement after pleading guilty to making illegal payments to the AUC and trying to disguise them as business costs by the U.S. State Department. However, victims of the AUC, who number in the thousands, never saw a cent of that.

Chiquita has denied the charges in the current case, arguing that the payments to AUC constituted extortion and were made under duress. That argument was rejected by U.S courts in the 2007 decision against Chiquita.

The company previously petitioned to move all civil cases to Colombian courts, but a judiciary panel in Colombia denied the motion and ordered the processes to be carried out in the U.S.

A two-decade fight

Plaintiffs, represented by Earth Rights International, have advocated for nearly two decades in courts in both Colombia and the United States for the right to hold the fruit giant accountable in civil courts.

“This historic ruling marks the first time that an American jury has held a major U.S. corporation liable for complicity in serious human rights abuses in another country, a milestone for justice,” said plaintiffs in a press release late Monday.

According to court findings, the company paid 3 cents on the dollar to AUC forces for each box of bananas exported from the country. In recent years Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a judicial body set up to judge crimes committed during the country’s half-century armed conflict, has heard testimony from AUC commanders. These have reinforced U.S. court findings and unearthed new details of how the company attempted to hide funding for the paramilitary group. 

The AUC is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths. During Colombia’s civil war, it eradicated entire villages, orchestrated the murders of trade union representatives and rivals, and kidnapped politicians. The group was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2001. Families of the victims of AUC have been lobbying for years for the right to sue the U.S. fruit company in civil courts — petitions that Chiquita Brands has delayed with legal tactics for over a decade. 

In addition to making payments, victims and ex-AUC commanders claim Chiquita delivered weapons and gasoline to paramilitary forces in the region of Urabá, in Antioquia, Colombia. Victims argue that executives were aware these resources were being used to kill civilians and suppress unions in or near their operations in Colombia.

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It is merely the latest turn in a long series of ongoing legal problems over Chiquita operations in Colombia. In August 2018, Colombia’s Prosecutor’s Office formally accused executives at Chiquita of “aggravated conspiracy to commit a crime” as part of their funding criminal groups, as well as attempting to hide the funding in the company ledgers as “security payments.” 

Colombia’s peace court has argued that financing of paramilitary forces by both domestic and international corporations go beyond the AUC payments to include trade union suppression, and amount to crimes against humanity.

The central issue in the current case is whether Chiquita “acted reasonably in dealing with the AUC and whether the payments made to AUC materially assisted the AUC in carrying out its illegal actions,” according to court documents.

Charles “Buck” Keiser, who was in charge of Chiquita’s operations in Colombia from 1987 to 2000, testified before the court on May 3. In an attempt to avoid becoming mired in the conflict, he said, the company did not directly purchase farms in the country, but rather organized contracts to buy fruit from other growers.

During this period, the company also made payments to left-wing guerilla forces who then controlled the region.  

But Keiser claimed that the company was being extorted and had been violently attacked multiple times by illegal armed groups, who murdered several workers and caused millions of dollars in damages.

But Chiquita executives admitted that these attacks were carried out by left-wing rebels rather than AUC forces, who never threatened Chiquita institutionally, according to court documents. 

Lawyers for EarthRights International presented testimony from ex-AUC commanders, that high-level executives from Chiquita met directly with AUC leaders, and organized payments through independent contractors in an attempt to hide the illegal activity. 

‘False positives’

The activity of paramilitaries, or paracos as they are often called in Colombia, surged during the 2002-2010 presidency of Alvaro Uribe, who created public programs called Convivirs that legalized private financing of security groups to act as defense forces against left-wing rebel groups during Colombia’s civil war.

In theory, money from these programs could not be paid to illegal armed groups such as the AUC. But in practice, investigators rarely looked into the details of paramilitary financing and the AUC quickly became the largest of hundreds of “self-defense forces” in the country. 

These forces worked directly with the Colombian military during the civil war, providing support, intelligence, and even aiding in the infamous “false positives” cases, in which over 6,400 innocent civilians were executed and passed off as combat deaths to inflate army death counts. 

Families of AUC victims who have waited nearly two decades to hold the fruit giant responsible, finally got their day in court, and walked away with a victory in the long fight for accountability.

“This verdict sends a powerful message to corporations everywhere: profiting from human rights abuses will not go unpunished. These families, victimized by armed groups and corporations, asserted their power and prevailed in the judicial process,” said Simons.


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