Chiquita Brands International was ordered to pay a $25 million dollar fine after a guilty plea marked the first time that an American-based multinational has publicly admitted to making illegal payments to a terrorist organization.
Chiquita began making protection payments in the 1990s to the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by the Spanish-language acronym FARC. But when the AUC took over areas of the country where the company had large banana plantations, Chiquita switched as well -- making more than 100 payments to the right-wing paramilitary organization between 1997 and 2004.
There is less focus on the fact that the judgment clears executives of any further charges. Even less focus on an accusation that escalates Chiquita from extortion to murder;
In 2001, a Banadex ship was used to unload 3,000 rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition for the paramilitaries, which were officially listed as a "terrorist organization" by the U.S. government two months earlier.
Chiquita executives feel their conscience is clear and their debt has been paid because they came forth voluntarily and disclosed they were supporting an organization that has been on the U.S. Terrorist watch list since 2001. While this is a morally reprehensible act that supported and financed the murder of hundreds of innocent Columbians, Chiquita claims their hands was forced as a result of trying to operate in a corrupt nation. According to a May 2 story in Time, Terrorism and Bananas in Colombia;
Chiquita spokesman Michael Mitchell said that the company had felt obliged to make the payments to protect its employees. "We believe they saved people's lives," he said. However, during the time Chiquita was making the payments, thousands of people across Colombia died at the hands of the AUC, which expanded its power. In the banana belt alone between 1997 and 2004, right-wing paramilitaries are blamed for 22 massacres in which 137 people were killed, according to government figures.
Human rights campaigners also complain that the U.S. has not aggressively pursued U.S. financiers of the Colombian paramilitary groups on its own list of terrorist organizations. "It wasn't like this was an aggressive investigation," said Kovalik. Chiquita came forward with information about the payments, and the case "sort of fell in the lap of the Justice Department so they had to do something," he said.
A corporation with an annual revenue of about $4.5 billion worldwide, proposed a $25-million fine and Chiquita officials are very pleased with Justice Lamberth’s decision to accept the plea agreement.
Apparently the corrupt nation in question is having trouble understanding the time honored American tradition of settling murders by rich people with a civil penalty and they are interested in extraditing these Chiquita executives to face criminal charges.
Carlos Holguin, Colombia's justice and interior minister, felt differently, according to a Colombian radio report last week. The plea agreement "is not worthy of U.S. justice, because it gives the idea that impunity can be bought for a few million dollars," he told Bogota's Radio Caracol on Wednesday.
But the books are closed and a part of the settlement is that the court won’t even reveal the names of the parties responsible for so many innocent Columbians dying a violent death.
Prior to the decision an extensive study of the Chiquita Death Squads named some of those Chiquita executives and they deserve mention.
Among those being investigated are former Chiquita chief executive Cyrus Freidheim Jr. (now C.E.O. of Sun-Times Media Group) and former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Roderick Hills, who served on Chiquita’s board and is married to Carla Hills, who served as the United States trade representative under President George H.W. Bush. (Freidheim and Hills declined to discuss the case.) In addition, Colombia’s attorney general, Mario Iguarán, has vowed to extradite Chiquita officials who authorized the payments to face charges in Colombia. "This was a criminal relationship," Iguarán has said, that led to "the bloody pacification of Urabá."
And even less mention is given to the accusations that Chiquita’s "excruciating dilemma," may have a great deal to do with suppressing workers’ rights. Colombia's attorney general, Mario Iguarán wants to dig deeper and get to the truth;
"The relationship was not one of the extortionist and the extorted but a criminal relationship," said Iguarán referring to the Chiquita plea agreement in late March.
The effort to combat these practices in U.S. courts began in the mid-1990s. Dan Kovalik, a human rights lawyer working in Pittsburgh, has led several high-profile lawsuits against American multinationals operating in Latin America. He estimates that there are currently some 24 lawsuits facing U.S. corporations with operations across the world, from Coca-Cola in Colombia and Daimler-Chrysler in Argentina to ExxonMobil in Indonesia and Chevron in Nigeria.
"During the last decade there's been a growing awareness of the globalization of capital and the ill-effects it brings to workers and the environment, prompting a string of lawsuits against American multinationals," said Kovalik. "In the case of Colombia, the prosecution of U.S. multinationals has also come about due to a close working partnership between U.S. labor unions and Colombian trade unions who are now speaking out about human rights abuses committed against their union members."
Most of the lawsuits have been filed under the Alien Torture Statute, a law allowing foreigners, usually the families of victims, to bring suits alleging violations of international human rights against American companies operating abroad in U.S. courts.
But for Chiquita the case is closed. With prosecution agreeing not to name or prosecute the executives, there will be no further investigation. With Columbia standing as the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the Western Hemisphere, Mario Iguarán's inquiries will probably go nowhere.
There is this pertinent fact from Amnesty International, six out of every 10 trade unionists murdered in the world are Colombian.
There is some good news. The United Steelworkers’ may have already failed in trying to bring the Drummond Death Squads to justice but there are other cases to fight and the Democratic majority has been sympathetic to this mistreatment. Back in July there were investigative hearings into that company;
Witnesses ranging from a former Colombian military officer to an American human rights expert testified before Congress today that paramilitary groups are murdering trade unionists in Colombia at a rate unparalleled in the world and on the dime of multinational corporations based in the United States.
Francisco Ramirez Cuellar, president of Sintraminercol, the Colombian mine workers union, and author of, "The Profits of Extermination, How U.S. Corporate Power is Destroying Colombia," told the Congressmen there is proof that Drummond Ltd., the Colombian subsidiary of Alabama-based Drummond Co., Inc., paid paramilitaries to kill three union officials at Drummond. And, he said, several other American companies, including Ohio-based Chiquita Brands International, have been involved in similar practices.
Dan Kovalik, a United Steelworkers’ lawyer who has investigated paramilitaries since 2001, promised to provide the Congressmen with affidavits from witnesses testifying to the connections between Drummond Ltd. money, paramilitaries and the murder of three trade unionists employed by Drummond.
But what a desperate situation. We need trade unions to force investigations for justice in this nation and the courts are protecting big American companies that seem to be international terrorist organizations themselves.