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2007-03-23

Chiquita Admits to Paying Colombian Paramilitary Group on U.S. Terror List

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Guests

Adam Isacson, director of the Colombia program at the Center for International Policy.

Ignacio Gomez, renowned Colombian journalist, director of investigations for the Colombian public affairs television show Noticias Uno, speaking to us from Bogota.

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The Cincinnati-based fruit company Chiquita has admitted to paying off the group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Chiquita has agreed to a $25 million fine on the condition that it doesn’t have to reveal the names of the executives involved. Chiquita says it fell victim to an extortion racket that threatened its employees. But Colombia’s attorney general has said he will seek the extradition of eight Chiquita employees over what he calls "a criminal relationship." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Cincinnati-based fruit company Chiquita has found itself at the center of another major controversy over its practices in Latin America. On Monday, Chiquita admitted it had paid off the group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States government. Chiquita has agreed to pay the U.S. government a fine of $25 million on the condition that it doesn’t have to reveal the names of executives that were involved. The $25 million penalty comes out to around half of what Chiquita received from selling its Colombian subsidiary in 2004. Chiquita has defended the payments, saying it fell victim to an extortion racket that threatened its employees. This is Chiquita senior vice president James Thompson.

JAMES THOMPSON: The payments made by the company at all times were motivated by the company’s good-faith desire and concern for the safety of all of its employees. Nevertheless, we also recognized our obligation to disclose the facts and circumstances of this admittedly difficult situation to the United States government and the Department of Justice.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Chiquita senior vice president James Thompson. Colombian authorities have taken a different view. Colombia’s attorney general has said he will seek the extradition of eight Chiquita employees allegedly involved in making the payments. The attorney general, Mario Iguarán, said, quote, "The relationship was not one of the extortionist and the extorted but a criminal relationship. ... When you pay a group like this, you are conscious of what they are doing." Colombian prosecutors have also accused Chiquita of providing arms to the right-wing paramilitary groups that were then used to push leftist rebels out of an area in northern Colombia where Chiquita had its banana plantations.

AMY GOODMAN: This isn’t the first time Chiquita has been accused of criminal activity in Colombia and Latin America, and for more on this story, we’re now joined by three guests. Here in our firehouse studio in New York, investigative journalist Nicholas Stein has covered Chiquita for Fortune magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review. Joining us in Washington, D.C., Adam Isacson, director of the Colombia program at the Center for International Policy. On the phone from Colombia, Ignacio Gómez, renowned journalist who has broken major stories on Chiquita’s dealings in Colombia.

We’re going to go first to Adam Isacson in Washington, D.C. Talk about, first, what the developments this week, this $25 million fine on Chiquita that it has agreed to pay, and the history of the Chiquita Brands International, Chiquita company.

ADAM ISACSON: Sure. First, what the guilty plea agreement says is that Chiquita, over the course of seven years, between 1997 and 2004, made a hundred or more payments, totaling about $1.7 million, to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which most people just call "the paramilitaries." The United Self-Defense Forces, which are on the United States list of terrorist groups, have killed about 20,000 Colombians in the last 20 years, and they are responsible for about three-quarters, actually, of all killings in Colombia in the last 20 years. And they were founded by large landowners and by factions of the military, as well as by—and financed by drug lords.

So these guys came to Chiquita Brands in 1997 and said to them, "We’re going to kick the guerrillas out of the Urabá region," which is the region of northwestern Colombia where the banana—really, the banana heartland of Colombia—"and we want money from you in order to do this." And Chiquita, you know, took this as a threat, but willingly made the payments over the course of a long time. And indeed, the paramilitaries in that Urabá region, day after day, carried out massacre after massacre, killing thousands of people and cleansing the region not just of guerrillas but of most civilian noncombatants, and especially anybody who was trying to organize the labor unions—the laborers in the banana plantations.

Now, Chiquita, for those of you who have studied Latin America, in the past, Chiquita used to be called United Fruit. And it’s hard to actually have a course in high school or college on the history of the United States in Latin America without having at least passed over the United Fruit Company, because it has a pretty bad reputation over the last, really, 80 or 90 years. United Fruit basically introduced the banana to the United States around the turn of the last century. But in doing so, they became very wealthy and accrued huge land holdings all through Central America and in the north of Colombia, and became so powerful that they were really the kingmakers. They had the ears of presidents, and they orchestrated military coups. They made sure that whoever was in power in the countries where they were was favorable to United Fruit’s investments.

One of the most notorious cases was in 1954 in Guatemala. When the elected president of Guatemala decided to try to expropriate some of the unused land that United Fruit had control of, the CIA, claiming they were communists, helped orchestrate a coup. And Guatemala had about 30 years of military dictatorships after that and a bloody, bloody civil war. Also, in 1927, in Colombia itself, workers on United Fruit plantations in northern Colombia protested, and there was a massacre, which Colombians just call the Cienaga Massacre, that killed hundreds. We don’t even know how many were actually killed by that, but Colombians remember that to this day.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Adam Isacson, I wanted to ask you about the particular events of this past week, because my understanding is that the company informed the U.S. government a couple of years ago that it was making these payments, and suddenly now we’re getting a plea agreement. Was there actually an indictment before a plea agreement, or did they just immediately go to court and plead guilty without even being charged?

ADAM ISACSON: There was an indictment, and I’m not exactly sure about the order in which it happened, but the document, the public document that you can read, is indeed an indictment. But yeah, Chiquita back in—it was in mid-2003, and then they publicly announced in the spring of 2004, that they had voluntarily given this information to the U.S. Justice Department. After they had made the decision to leave Colombia and also had some management changes, they had voluntarily turned this over. So, at the time, it looked like a really good example of, you know, what the public relations people call "scandal management." Get it all out now, and don’t stonewall, and the thing will blow over. And it looked like it—looked like it worked, because it was—you know, in 2004, when they made the announcement, there were a couple wire stories, and then it just disappeared.

This week, there’s a firestorm. And a key reason for that is the Colombian government’s own on reaction, saying that they’re going to extradite some of these Cincinnati-based executives of Chiquita, which some people see as them trying to distract attention from an ongoing scandal involving the president’s own supporters being tied to paramilitaries. Others see it though as Colombians just being angry about—you know, they’re extraditing hundreds of their own citizens to the United States to face trial for drug crimes, and meanwhile U.S. citizens who have trafficked drugs out of Colombia or who have paid armed groups are getting slaps on the wrist. And so, it really taps into some resentment in Colombia. But it’s kept the story very much up front this week.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Isacson, I want to bring Ignacio Gómez into the conversation, renowned Colombian journalist, director of investigations for the Colombian public affairs television show Noticias Uno. You’re speaking to us from Bogotá, Ignacio Gómez. Your assessment of the $25 million fine and Chiquita’s involvement in Colombia and the AUC, this paramilitary in Colombia?

IGNACIO GÓMEZ: Well, one lesson is that the U.S. media is losing the complete picture, because in Colombia we are not talking just about the recent case and the payments. We are talking about a complete story of corruptions in Chiquita dating back in 1994 in Colombia, and according to a court document, to run the biggest operation in war here from Turbo in the Urabá Gulf in the north of the country. What happened then was that Chiquita did a payment, an illegal payment, to the Colombian custom for them to get a port facility. And this port facility was the headquarter of the banana bloc of a lot of operations of the Bloque Bananero of the AUC. And then the case also involves—

AMY GOODMAN: Ignacio, can you explain what the AUC does, the paramilitary? Most Americans have never even heard of it.

IGNACIO GÓMEZ: Well, since the beginning, in 1988, when the banana operations start to go on in Urabá, the unions tried to negotiate a complete deal for the entire workers of this farm, and the banana managers wanted to negotiate farm by farm. The guerrillas start to be involved in the organization of the union. And the paramilitary start to run a killing operation. There were more than four massacres in ’88. And the final operation for them start to take place in 1996, when Chiquita got the port facility to run the complete banana operation there.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Isacson, let me ask about the AUC and about Chiquita saying they were paying this money, defending it, to say they were protecting their workers, when here we have Ignacio Gómez saying that the AUC was known for terrorizing them.

ADAM ISACSON: Well, and Ignacio is right. The AUC—basically, just the origins of the AUC. About 20, 25 years ago, after wealthy Colombians and some of the newly rich drug lords in Colombia decided that they had had it with being harassed and extorted by guerrilla groups, they began to form citizen militias and arming them very, very strongly and got a lot of help from the Colombia military in doing that. These sort of militias or vigilantes or self-defense groups soon became called paramilitaries, and they grew enormously, largely because of the drug money they were getting. And they operated not by fighting the guerrillas, you know, on battlefields; they chose to fight citizens, civilians, who happened to live in areas under guerrilla control, like the banana heartland of Urabá, and began to target reformist or leftist leaders, too—leftist political parties, union organizers, school teachers, human rights defenders—and killed thousands of them. And this has continued up to the present day. The AUC is now formally demobilized, after having negotiated with the government, the center-right government of Álvaro—really, right-wing government of Álvaro Uribe in Colombia. But they still exist, and they still are carrying out killings right now.

Now, in the banana-growing region that we’re talking about, yeah, they were hitting up all of the—anybody who owned a business, really, asking them for money, asking them for contributions. A lot of businesses gave these contributions willingly and admit that they did so, because they were so tired of the guerrillas and were just happy to have a scorched earth campaign to make it possible to do business. Chiquita claims that they were under duress, but they made about a hundred of these payments, so, you know, eventually, after your hundredth payment or so, the duress argument starts to wear a bit thin. Clearly, maybe they probably were protecting their workers to some extent, because the paramilitaries would have been attacking their facilities had they not paid up, but—or they would have claimed that the guerrillas would have been, but in the end, they were really making it possible to do business in a very, very brutal way, the paramilitaries were, with the $1.7 million that came from Chiquita and more—probably more from other companies.

Last point I’d like to make, just quickly, is that when this happened, 1996, 1997, the governor of the part of Colombia that we’re talking about, who was governor while they were expanding the paramilitary presence in the Urabá region, was Álvaro Uribe, who is now president of the whole country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you mentioned that, and also you mentioned that the paramilitary groups have been largely disbanded, Carlos Castaño, their leader, was jailed. But yet, recently, as you also mentioned, there’s been a lot of information in Colombia about ties—

ADAM ISACSON: That’s right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of the Uribe government officials to some of these same paramilitary groups. Could you talk about that?

ADAM ISACSON: Yeah, there’s a growing scandal in Colombia right now in which information is leaking out, a lot of it coming from like the paramilitaries’ own laptop computers and things that have been confiscated and other witnesses coming forward, showing that people like the head of presidential intelligence during Uribe’s first term, governors, pro-Uribe governors of several departments or provinces in northern Colombia—right now it’s 10 senators and congresspeople all from Uribe’s bloc in Congress either under arrest or fugitives, and several more already under investigation by the authorities, all of them being investigated for either meeting with and offering verbal shows of support to the paramilitaries, and in some cases, even helping the paramilitaries plan and carry out massacres and operations. Already, one military colonel has been put up in the scandal, and even people in the Defense Ministry are expecting more military officers to fall onto this.

It’s growing. It’s snowballing. Every week there seem to be new arrests. And it’s been what—people who watch Colombia are not surprised by it, because we knew that there was a huge sector of Colombia’s government and Colombia’s ruling class that had made their deal with the paramilitaries, that had been in bed with them. And, you know, the fact that this is coming out now, and that it’s coming out in a big way, is good for Colombia, but it’s also—it’s important that people here in Washington are paying attention to it, because it does tell us a lot about who we have been aiding, to the tune of $5.4 billion since 2000. And hopefully the new Democratic Congress will be going into its new aid for Colombia with its eyes wide open as information about this scandal continues to come north.

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting this government should reveal this information, the fine, the $25 million, right after Bush leaves Colombia.

ADAM ISACSON: That is interesting. I guess that’s mainly up to the Justice Department itself, that they didn’t want this to cloud the headlines when President Bush spent his day in Colombia a week ago Sunday.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Isacson, I know you have to leave. We’re going to go to break, but we want Ignacio Gómez is to stay with us, and we’ll also be joined in our New York studio by Nicholas Stein, to talk about the exposé of Chiquita that happened almost 10 years ago in the Cincinnati Enquirer and how it is that that wasn’t followed up on, or why it was that the Cincinnati Enquirer ultimately apologized for doing the explosive exposé it did. Adam Isacson, director of the Colombia program at the Center for International Policy in Washington. We’ll be back in a minute.

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