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Relatives of Colombia Death Squad Victims Sue U.S.-Based Fruit Giant Chiquita for Arming, Funding Their Killers

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The Cincinnati-based fruit company Chiquita is being sued for funding, arming and supporting death squads in Colombia. The human rights group EarthRights International filed the class action lawsuit on behalf of six Colombians whose relatives had allegedly been murdered by a Colombian paramilitary group that was partially funded by Chiquita. The lawsuit alleges that the banana giant funneled money and guns to a right-wing death squad that murdered thousands of people and shipped untold amounts of cocaine to the United States. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMar 23, 2007Chiquita Admits to Paying Colombian Paramilitary Group on U.S. Terror List
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Cincinnati-based fruit company Chiquita was sued Thursday for arming and supporting terrorist organizations in Colombia. The human rights group EarthRights International filed the class action lawsuit on behalf of six Colombians whose relatives had allegedly been murdered by a Colombian paramilitary group that was partially funded by Chiquita.

The lawsuit alleges that the banana giant funneled money and guns to a right-wing death squad that murdered thousands of people and shipped untold amounts of cocaine to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Part of the lawsuit is not in dispute. Earlier this year Chiquita admitted one of its subsidiaries paid about $1.7 million to the right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which is also known as the AUC. The group is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Chiquita also agreed to pay the U.S. government a $25 million fine. At the time Chiquita defended its actions, saying it fell victim to an extortion racket that threatened its employees.

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 GONZALEZ: But authorities in Colombia have taken a different view. Colombia’s attorney general said in March that he will seek the extradition of eight Chiquita employees allegedly involved in making the payments. The attorney general, Mario Iguaran, said, “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.”

Marco Simons joins us in Washington. He’s the legal director of EarthRights International. We invited Chiquita to appear on the program, but they declined to come on. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MARCO SIMONS: Thank you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tell us about the lawsuit.

MARCO SIMONS: Well, essentially, the lawsuit is a class action on behalf of the victims of the Colombian paramilitary organization that was funded and otherwise supported by Chiquita. It’s been filed under United States law known as the Alien Tort Statute or Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows lawsuits in the United States federal court for violations of international human rights law. And so, it allows the victims of what happened in Colombia to come to the United States to Chiquita’s home territory to seek accountability and justice for the injuries that they have suffered.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us exactly who these people are who have sued and then what the legal theory is that you’re using.

MARCO SIMONS: Well, I can’t tell you exactly who they are, because we’re keeping their identities secret for their own safety. Although the situation in Colombia has improved somewhat over the past few years, people who speak out against human rights abuses are still being assassinated. Several have been assassinated in just the past six months. And so, it’s paramount to us that the safety of the victims be maintained by keeping their identities secret.

In general, however, they are family members of victims of the paramilitaries, and these are victims who were killed for a variety of reasons. There was a labor organizer who was organizing banana workers, who was taken off a bus by paramilitaries and shot; people shot in the banana fields; social organizers who were advocating for causes that the paramilitaries were opposed to; a woman taken out and shot in front of her family. And so, these are family members who are now speaking out, but their exact identities are being kept confidential for the moment.

In terms of the legal theory, essentially the legal theory is — it’s similar to what the attorney general of Colombia was discussing, that Chiquita, by supporting these paramilitaries, becomes an accomplice to their actions. And we believe it goes beyond that. We believe that Chiquita is actually essentially engaged in a criminal conspiracy with the paramilitary organizations to control the banana-growing region of Colombia and that it was to Chiquita’s great benefit to use the paramilitaries to maintain a social and political stability within this region to allow them to conduct their extremely profitable banana-growing operations.

What the Chiquita executives probably didn’t tell you is that during this period, when they claimed they were being extorted by the paramilitaries, their Colombian subsidiary was the most profitable arm of Chiquita’s global operations, and, in fact, they continued to buy land in Colombia in the area where they said it was so dangerous that they had to pay protection payments to the paramilitaries. They continued to buy land and expand their operations until 2004, when they abruptly sold their Colombian subsidiary at around the same time that the Justice Department began investigating their payments to the paramilitaries.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Marco Simons, Chiquita, of course, is the original American multinational corporation, the old United Fruit Company, and it had holdings throughout Latin America, Cuba, Guatemala, Costa Rica. How big are the holdings there and how extensive is the investment of Chiquita in Colombia?

MARCO SIMONS: Well, right now, they have sold off their Colombian operations, which they did when the Justice Department started investigating them. But during the period when they were funding the paramilitaries and trafficking arms for them, they were the major banana producer in Colombia, the major exporter from Colombia. And so, they were really a huge force in the — especially in the banana-growing region of Colombia.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to share with you Chiquita’s response. We did ask them to join us, as Juan said. They declined to come on. But Chiquita spokesperson Michael Mitchell did send us a written comment. He said, in part, “Chiquita Brands International categorically denies the allegations made by the attorneys for EarthRights International. We reiterate that Chiquita and its employees were victims and that the actions taken by the company were always motivated to protect the lives of our employees and their families… Chiquita has already been the victim of extortion in Colombia. We will not allow ourselves to become extortion victims in the United States. We will defend any preposterous suit of this nature vigorously.” Marco Simons, your response?

MARCO SIMONS: Well, I first have to say how horrific it is, to me, to be comparing paramilitaries in Colombia with the victims of those paramilitaries, in terms of equating what they are seeking from Chiquita, and that, right off the bat, that’s a really horrific way to frame the situation.

But beyond that, as I said, the facts that we know at this point really don’t support Chiquita’s whole position that they were just being extorted. They paid the paramilitaries for a course of about seven years, during which time their own lawyers were telling them that it’s illegal to make these payments and they cannot do it, and that, you know, while extortion may have been a good excuse for a year or two, that over the course of seven years that that excuse wears thin. They were buying up land. They were expanding their operations. So it doesn’t really make sense that this was simply extortion.

But even if it was, even if it was only extortion, it still doesn’t absolve Chiquita from liability. You know, there were many war criminals tried during World War II who tried to defend their actions on the basis that they were just following orders, and, in fact, they would have been executed if they hadn’t. Well, that’s not necessarily a defense to being an accomplice to war crimes or crimes against humanity, as Chiquita was here. They didn’t do everything they could have to prevent violence on the part of the paramilitaries.

This was not a one-time extortion payment with a gun to somebody’s head. This was a long-term relationship that not only involved the payment of millions of dollars to the paramilitaries, but also in at least one documented instance involved the use of Chiquita’s facilities to smuggle guns into Colombia. The Colombian government found that Chiquita’s private port, which Chiquita has been found by an investigation of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to have paid bribes to Colombian officials to secure privileges for, that they used this private port to import 3,000 AK-47s and a couple of million rounds of ammunitions that were transferred to the AUC. Now, Chiquita, of course, also denies that they had any knowledge that their private proprietary-controlled port was being used in this fashion, but the evidence against them is mounting, and their excuses are really wearing thin.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Was there any indication during the years that they were paying this money that they complained to the Colombian government about the extortion that they say they were under subject to?

MARCO SIMONS: Well, the payments appear to have come as a surprise to the Colombian attorney general, so I’d be very surprised if the Colombian government had any notion that these payments were being made before. So, no, as far as I know, Chiquita didn’t complain to the police or the Colombian government that they were being forced to make these payments. And, in fact, they were illegal under Colombian law, as well as U.S. federal law.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back, the history of this story and how it has come out in this country, that also involves the major press in the United States. In 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an 18-page expose of Chiquita’s dealings throughout Latin America. The paper found that Chiquita exposed entire communities to dangerous U.S.-banned pesticides, forced the eviction of an entire Honduran village at gunpoint, suppressed unions, paid a fortune to U.S. politicians to influence trade policy.

The Enquirer was later forced to retract the entire story. They issued a front-page apology. They reportedly gave $14 million to Chiquita in a settlement, after it was revealed that the lead reporter, Mike Gallagher, had illegally accessed more than 2,000 Chiquita voicemails. Now, the reason they had to retract the story was over that issue of how Mike Gallagher, the reporter, had gotten the information, tracking the voicemail within the company, somehow got access to that. But the facts were never refuted. This is 10 years ago that this story came out. It was a remarkable edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer. What effect did that have on getting information out about Chiquita?

MARCO SIMONS: Well, as far as I know, it didn’t have a whole lot of impact on getting information out about what they were doing in Colombia with the paramilitaries. Again, you know, at that time in 1998, they were making regular payments to the paramilitaries. That fact did not come out at the time. In fact, it didn’t come out until 2003, 2004, when Chiquita finally realized that, you know, maybe violating U.S. and Colombian law wasn’t such a good thing, and they started working with the Justice Department to see whether these payments should stop or not, although even after they were informed that it was illegal, these payments didn’t stop.

But this is — you’re right that this is certainly not the end or the whole story of Chiquita’s malfeasance, in Latin America, especially. And on the pesticide issue, in Colombia, as well, the workers in the banana fields have been in many cases made sterile by the pesticides that Chiquita has used in Colombia, in Honduras and elsewhere. And so, certainly paying violent death squads to help control the banana-growing region of Colombia is one of the worst activities that Chiquita has engaged in in recent years, but it’s not the only problem that the company has been involved in.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what is the Colombian government doing at this stage, if anything, around Chiquita’s illegal activities?

MARCO SIMONS: Well, as far as I know, they are still investigating who is responsible for these illegal payments. They announced that they would consider or that they were looking into the possibility of extraditing Chiquita executives. They have not, as far as I know, named the executives involved. That may be because they don’t know who they are. The suspicion is that as part of their plea deal with the Department of Justice in which Chiquita did plead guilty to financing terrorists and paid a $25 million fine, that as part of that deal, Chiquita was assured that the individual executives responsible for this would not be prosecuted and, you know, their names would not become public. However, the United States has a long track record of extraditing people from Colombia, especially drug traffickers, and so it would be difficult for the United States to refuse an extradition request going the other way, when Colombia discovers that the United States individuals were involved in perpetrating the horrible violence there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, in other words, Chiquita has paid a $25 million fine to the United States for breaking U.S. law, but has paid nothing to Colombia where the crimes actually were committed.

MARCO SIMONS: As far as I know, that’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: And the power of the Chiquita company here in this country?

MARCO SIMONS: Well, I guess we’ll see, in part. You know, we’ve litigated a lot of these cases against corporations for human rights abuses around the world, and one thing that often happens in a lot of these cases is that the Bush administration intervenes to tell the courts that these cases cannot proceed, that they will interfere with foreign policy in some respect. And that, to some degree, is a measure of the political power of the corporations involved.

Chiquita, while it is a big player in Latin America and a major fruit producer, is not nearly as large a corporation as, for example, the oil companies that we have sued for murdering protesters in Nigeria. And so, it remains to be seen how much clout they really have in this country. And even if they do get the Bush administration on their side, the courts have generally been pretty dismissive of administration arguments that suing U.S. corporations for recognized human rights abuses around the world really interferes with any foreign policy goals of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Marco Simons, the whole issue of the Alien Tort Claims Act and what you really could accomplish with this lawsuit, if you could give us the history of how it’s been used, most often against military officials, soldiers, dictators in other countries who have committed human rights abuses. What do you hope to accomplish here with a U.S.-based corporation?

MARCO SIMONS: Sure, well, yes. The modern use of the Alien Tort Claims Act started around 1980, when the courts decided that it could be used to sue for torture and extrajudicial killings committed by foreign officials. And for about 10 or 15 years, that’s how it was used, to sue individuals who were found in the United States who had committed torture and other abuses around the world. And while these cases were extremely important in moving the law forward and in providing a degree of symbolic justice to the victims, almost all of the perpetrators of these abuses, with a couple of exceptions, had no ability to really compensate the victims of their crimes. That started to change in the mid- to late-1990s, when EarthRights International and other organizations started suing multinational corporations that were based in the United States, or subject to jurisdiction here, for their crimes around world. We sued a the Unocal Corporation of Southern California, oil and gas company, for abuses associated with its natural gas pipeline in Burma. And after nine years of litigation, Unocal finally settled that case on the eve of trial in 2005, finally paying compensation to the victims.

AMY GOODMAN: Marco Simons, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I want to thank you very much for being with us, legal director of EarthRights International, speaking to us from Washington, D.C.

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