Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Colombia: Chiquita in hot seat over paramilitary ties

In 2007, Chiquita Brands pled guilty in a U.S. court to charges that they paid Colombian paramilitaries to serve as security on banana plantations. Under conditions of the plea deal the company would pay a $25 million fine though it absolved ten former execs from being charged.

In the years since that decision, other lawsuits would be brought up against Chiquita in the name of victims of Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict. Not much has come out of these individual cases yet a South Florida federal judge could permit that all of the cases could be consolidated into one large class action case.

If allowed to proceed, the class action lawsuit representing over 4000 Colombian families could end up costing Chiquita billions of dollars. "A company that pays a terrorist organization that kills thousands of people should get the capital punishment of civil liability and be put out of business by punitive damages," said attorney Terry Collingsworth, whose lawsuit may be part of the class action case.

“This company has committed a crime without name against Colombia,” said semana.com commentator Leon Valencia who also detailed how Chiquita directors and paramilitary chiefs worked out a pact in 1997 that would pay the criminals three cents per every banana crate exported abroad. Hence, as Valencia noted, between 1997 and 2004 “647,706,429 banana crates left Colombia and $19,431,193 dollars went to the paramilitaries’ coffers.”

Chiquita have consistently insisted that they were “blackmailed” into accepting protection from the paramilitaries and that the lawsuits should be thrown out. "Chiquita was extorted in Colombia and company officials believed that the payments were necessary to prevent violent retaliation against employees," said company spokesman Ed Loyd to the AP. But the case against the banana company appears to be strong, especially if the findings of the Justice Department are included:
The lawsuits could be strengthened by the recent release of some 5,500 pages of internal Chiquita documents that were produced during the Justice Department probe. The documents detail how payments were hidden by accounting maneuvers, and shed light on Colombian government and political involvement with the paramilitary group. They also show there was a debate among Chiquita executives about whether the payments were proper.

In a 1997 handwritten note, one Chiquita executive said such payments are the "cost of doing business in Colombia."

"Need to keep this very confidential — people can get killed," he wrote.
On a related note, Colombia’s Congress may approve as soon as tomorrow in favor of a landmark bill that would provide “recognition and reparation” to thousands of victims of the country’s armed conflict. The Victims Law would not only provide monetary and land restitution for victims since 1985 but also for potential sufferers targeted by groups including emerging "criminal groups".

Image- AP via CBS News
Online Sources- CBS News, semana.com, The Latin Americanist, CBS News, Colombia Reports, The Guardian, poder360.com

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