Banana Land and the Corporate Death Squad Scandals

American based food companies are facing a spate of lawsuits charging that they have cooperated with and paid off groups officially designated as terrorists by the U.S. government.

In February, a federal judge refused to dismiss a civil suit filed against Chiquita, a global corporation that markets itself for "products and services [that] are designed to win the hearts and smiles of the world's consumers."
 [] The suit makes the less cheerful charge that the company paid "protection" money to leftist (FARC) guerrillas operating near its plantations in Colombia -- during a period when the FARC killed four American missionaries.

Families of the missionaries who are bringing this case (Julin et al. v. Chiquita Brands Int'l) to Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida are suing Chiquita under the civil provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991, which allows American citizens and their heirs to be compensated for injuries resulting from international terrorism.

This is not the first time that Chiquita has faced charges of complicity with "terrorists." In March 2007, (US v. Chiquita Brands Intl) the company had pled guilty to violating U.S. antiterrorism laws by funding the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia ("AUC"). In the U.S. Department of Justice's Factual Proffer to the Court in conjunction with Chiquita's plea agreement in the 2007 case, the Justice Department stated that it could prove Chiquita made similar payments to FARC from 1989 through 1997. Both FARC and the AUC have been officially designated by the State Dept. as "Foreign Terrorist Organizations."

Meanwhile, Dole is facing similar charges. The families of former plantation workers and land squatters are suing the world's largest producer and marketer of fresh fruit and vegetables in the Los Angeles Superior Court of California. The plaintiffs' complaint in Juana Perez 1-51/Juan Perez 5e-50 V. Dole Food Company, Inc., details a horrific litany of summary executions, off-the-bus abductions, forced-entry murders, kidnappings, ghoulish disappearances, and other crimes committed against trade unionists and land reform activists between 1997 and 2008 - the period when Dole, like Chiquita, allegedly supported the paramilitary AUC.

While Dole has denied making payments, Chiquita has taken a different route, voluntarily telling the Department of Justice about the payments. Its consistent position has been that both the left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries extorted cash "to protect the lives of its employees."

Both positions have become increasingly untenable now that paramilitaries who took the payments have come in from the cold. In exchange for disarming, submitting to Colombia's "Justice and Peace" process, and confessing to all their crimes, the former combatants have been promised reduced jail time.

Dole's denial of pay offs is contradicted by sworn affidavits filed in the ongoing litigation. Jose Gregorio Mangones Lugo (aka "Carlos Tijeras") was the former commander of the William Rivas Front of the AUC group that operated in northern Colombia, in the zone where the companies and their suppliers grew bananas. In a sworn statement, Tijeras described the AUC's relationship with the head of plantations controlled or owned by both Dole and Chiquita as "an open public relationship" involving everything from "security services" to the kidnapping and extrajudicial assassination of labor leaders fingered by the companies as "security problems."

Tijeras' statement-which reads like the confessions of a corporate death squad leader and directly refutes his paymasters' version of events - was entered into the record in the California case  (Juana Perez 1-51/Juan Perez 5e-50 V. Dole Food Company, Inc), filed against Dole in April 2009 by attorneys with Conrad and Scherer, representing the families of the 73 people killed by the AUC.

"I've been told that Chiquita has asserted that they paid the AUC funds, but that this was coerced and was a form of extortion," Tijeras states. "I have also heard that Dole claims to have never paid us any funds. Both of these assertions are absolutely false. In fact, my agreement with Chiquita and Dole was to provide them with total security and other services."

"These terrorists have every reason to lie by making false allegations against international companies like Dole in order to minimize their own culpability and reduce their jail time," said C. Michael Carter, Dole's Executive Vice President and General Counsel.  "This lawsuit is irresponsible and the allegations are blatantly false."

Tijeras is not the only paramilitary to put some of the blame on the companies. Salvatore Mancuso, the overall commander of the AUC, also testified in early 2008 that Dole and Del Monte, like Chiquita, had been providing major support to the AUC since its inception. He repeated the accusation to 60 Minutes, which originally aired the segment in September 2008.

According to these and other witnesses, as well as investigators familiar with the bloody history of Colombia, the companies originally hired the AUC to drive the leftist FARC guerillas out of the banana-growing region and protect their plantations from, as Tijeras put it, "the gangs of common delinquents that robbed their supplies and equipment." Once the FARC was vanquished and order restored, the banana companies continued to pay the AUC to "pacify" their work forces, suppress the labor unions, and terrorize peasant squatters perusing competing land claims.

After we restored order and became the local agents of law enforcement, managers for Chiquita and Dole plantations relied upon us to respond to their complaints. ...We would also get calls from the Chiquita and Dole plantations identifying specific people as "security problems" or just "problems." Everyone knew that this meant we were to execute the identified person. In most cases those executed were union leaders or members or individuals seeking to hold or reclaim land that Dole or Chiquita wanted for banana cultivation, and the Dole or Chiquita administrators would report to the AUC that these individuals were suspected guerillas or criminals.

According to Tijeras, for years the companies provided up to 90 percent of the AUC's income.

When the families and heirs of dozens of victims filed the case against Dole in April 2009, the company immediately rejected the charges as "baseless allegations" that "are the product of the most untrustworthy sources imaginable" and "nothing more than the false confessions of convicted terrorists from Colombia, who had every motive to lie about their activities in order to minimize their jail time."

Dole's use of the term "terrorist" to refer to the AUC accurately reflects the official U.S. State Department categorization of the group assigned (coincidentally) on September 10, 2001. That designation carries legal consequences for both Dole (if evidence of the payments is proven) and Chiquita: First, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991 allows U.S. citizens and their heirs to sue over injuries from international terrorism; and second, payments to designated terrorists are illegal even if coerced -- and whether or not the company is cognizant of or indifferent to the consequences.

The ongoing case against Chiquita in Florida is strengthened by the company's March 2007 guilty plea in U.S. v. Chiquita Brands International, Inc., by its voluntarily disclosure of payments, and by its agreement to pay a $25 million criminal fine for violating U.S. antiterrorism laws. The 2007 Chiquita criminal case was remarkable for numerous revelations, not least that the company continued to make the payments against the advice of its own outside counsel, and even after notifying the Justice Department.

As part of that settlement, Chiquita acknowledged that it had also made payments to the FARC from 1989 to at least 1997 -- a period, according to relatives, when the guerrilla group abducted and killed the missionaries.

Pattern of Complicity with Terror

It has been almost 3 years since Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA), chair of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, launched an investigation into U.S. multinationals' complicity with human rights violations in Colombia. At a June 2007 hearing, witnesses testified that there was a pattern of complicity between Colombian terrorists and multinational corporations  -- including the Alabama-based Drummond Co. Inc., which allegedly paid members of a Colombian terrorist group to kill three union organizers. The Miami Herald reported just days before the hearing that paramilitaries had also come forward to talk in detail about payments Drummond made to the paramilitaries.

Drummond denies all allegations against the company and its employees made by attorneys working for relatives of murdered Drummond employees.

Other companies with operations in Colombia that were mentioned at Delahunt's hearing include Occidental, Coca-Cola and ExxonMobil.

An "independent" review commissioned by the company's board reinforced Chiquita's claim that its sole motivation in making payments to both the FARC and the AUC was to protect the lives of its employees.

That report may help deflect derivative lawsuits filed by the company's own shareholders, but is greeted with skepticism in Colombia, where Attorney General Mario Iguaran roundly rejected Chiquita's explanation, and reportedly threatened to extradite as many as eight Chiquita executives (including John Paul Olivo, Charles Dennis Keiser, and Dorn Robert Wenninger) who, he says, were responsible for approving the payments and maintaining a "criminal relationship" with the paramilitaries.

Another remarkable aspect of the Chiquita case is the fact that the lead attorney representing Chiquita Brands International is now the U.S. attorney general.

In August 2007, when he was still representing Chiquita, Eric Holder told the Washington Post that it would be unfair to treat "harshly" any company that voluntarily discloses payments to designated terrorists, and that even if the company was penalized, the individuals within the firm should not be. Yet just a few years before he first passed through the revolving door, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Holder authored the "Holder Memo," a famous corporate crime policy memo asserting that the "prosecution of a corporation is not a substitute for the prosecution of criminally culpable individuals within or without the corporation."

Jason Glaser, a documentary filmmaker who helped launch the Banana Land Campaign in December, says that Attorney General Holder has a clear conflict of interest and should recuse himself from any decision concerning the requested extradition of Chiquita executives or any other matter related to the investigation of multinational complicity in violence in Colombia.

"Holder is the nation's top cop, overseeing a department that regularly claims that fighting terrorism is a top priority," Glaser points out. "If that's true, then it's worth asking where's the Department's investigation of Dole, which, unlike Chiquita won't volunteer any facts, and patently deny any allegations - when there is so much obvious evidence pointing their way?"

To learn more about the situation in Colombia and other countries check out The Banana Land Campaign and International Rights Advocates.

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