EL ESPECTADOR, April 30, 2024

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The trial of the multinational, Chiquita, in the United States for the consequences of financing the paramilitaries in Colombia has officially begun. Here we will be telling you what you need to know about the importance of this case and what the Colombian victims are asking from the North American legal system.

A United States court has just commenced a trial of the multinational banana company, Chiquita Brands, dealing with the rights of hundreds of victims of the paramilitaries in the Antioquia part of Urabá and in Magdalenio Medio, Colombia. In 2007, after the production of mercantile records, mail, and testimony, the multinational was convicted of paying USD $1,700,000 to paramilitary groups. After that historic conviction, campesinos, cattle ranchers, and residents of Colombia sued the company. A court in Florida selected the most representative cases and determined whether the financing was directly connected with the atrocious crimes committed by the paras.

  • The headline does say “crimes” but this appears to be a civil case.

Why is the case being tried in the United States?

In 2007, U.S. prosecutors proved that Chiquita Brands gave more than a million and a half dollars to paramilitary groups between 1997 and 2004. The evidence they presented, which  was admitted by the multinational, made clear that they began financing the paramilitaries after a private meeting in Medellin between Carlos Castaño and a high executive of Banadex, which was the most profitable subsidiary of Chiquita Brands in the country at that time.

The controversy is focused on the fact that, while Chiquita Brands was paying the money, in 2001, the United States government designated the paramilitaries as a foreign terrorist organization. “Like any criminal business, they needed a flow of financing to support their operations,” pointed out then-Chief Prosecutor of the Division of National Security, Kenneth Weinstein. In spite of that, Chiquita Brands kept on making the payments for three more years.

The United States Department of Justice concluded that “what makes this conduct so morally repugnant is that the Company continued, month after month, year after year, paying the same terrorists. They knew perfectly well that, even though their plantations were protected, and their workers were protected while they were literally in the plantations, Chiquita was paying money to buy the bullets that were killing innocent Colombians outside of their plantations.”

The trial concluded with the multinational having to pay a $25 million dollar fine and cooperate with the ongoing investigation. Ever since then, hundreds of victims from Urabá and from Magdalena Medio, through human rights organizations, filed suits against the multinational. The most representative cases were put together by a court in Florida, where jurors were selected this Monday, April 29, and are expected to issue their verdict in several weeks.

What is the trial about?

The representative cases all argue that, since Chiquita Brands financed the paramilitaries, that money ended up sponsoring the atrocities that the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) committed, the selective killings, the massacres, the forced displacements, and the plunder of land, among other things. The victims allege that the United States money paid by Chiquita Brands was directly related to Colombia’s armed conflict.

What is Chiquita Brands’ defense?

The principal argument that Chiquita Brands has used in its defense is that, although they gave money to the paramilitaries, it was all taken by force, the product of extortion. The United States government has even maintained that in the meeting with Carlos Castaño and the Banadex executives, the paramilitary made it clear that failure to make the payments “could result in physical damage to the personnel and property of Banadex”.

How long will the trial last?

It’s expected that, starting this Monday, and for the coming weeks, the Federal Court in Florida will be determining whether  Chiquita furnished money directly related to the commission of crimes. To do that, ten jurors were chosen this Monday, and it’s expected that that will take approximately a month. Sources close to the trial explained to EL EXPECTADOR that the plaintiffs’ case might last two weeks. Then Chiquita Brands will present its defense, which will try to prove that the payments were not made voluntarily. It’s estimated that it will take the defense two weeks to present its case. Once both parties have made their arguments, the jury will make its decision.

Who are the victims of the paramilitaries that Chiquita Brands gave money to?

According to the Truth Commission, the paramilitaries are responsible for more than 205,000 homicides in the entire national territory, for 52% of the historic cases of land plunder, 24% of the cases of kidnapping, and 17% of all forced displacements. A detailed look at information compiled by the Victims Unit establishes that between armed actors and government actors, between 1980 and 2010, the war left 261,779 victims in Urabá and Magdalena Medio.  Of those, 226,107 are victims of forced displacement, and 30,628 are victims of homicide. The victims insist that, with those statistics, Chiquita brands can have some responsibility.

What can we expect from this trial?

Substantially, the trial will start this April 30 with opening statements by both parties. That means that each will present their case. The first witness will be Fernando Aguirre, the former Director General of Chiquita Brands. He will be called by the plaintiffs to testify. Attorneys for the victims will offer evidence including video testimony by former paramilitaries like Salvatore Mancuso, Raúl Hasbún, alias Pedro Bonito, and Ignacio Roldán, alias Monoleche (Monkey Milk).

Is there any case against Chiquita Brands in Colombia?

The Attorney General’s Office in Colombia charged ten high executives from subsidiaries of Chiquita Brands in the decade from 1990 to 2000. In September of 2019, the prosecutors filed charges for the crime of criminal conspiracy, and the Superior Tribunal of Antioquia in 2021 dismissed the complaint, seeing an alleged violation of due process. Among the defendants was Álvaro Acevedo González, who was the general manager and legal representative of Banadex between 2001 and 2004. According to the complaint, they made 18 payments to the convivir[1] of more than $1,400,000 during that time and, specifically $338,000,000 to the paramilitary Carlos Tijeras in Santa Marta.

In the Attorney General’s Office complaint against these people, it’s emphasized that “from Cincinnati (where the Ohio corporate office of Chiquita Brands is located) they approved the payments to the AUC in Santa Marta. They were made through ‘Manager funds’ that were sent to that name and corresponded to the volume exported by the plantations at Retiro in that region.” The charge also includes Victor Manuel Henríquez, who was the Executive President of Banacol, a company that the prosecutors believe is a subsidiary of Chiquita, although he has denied that since 2001, claiming that they only bought the operation in Urabá.

[1] A convivir was supposedly a private defense organization, but those quickly became paramilitary groups.

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