Chiquita sued over Colombian paramilitary payments
Each name is next to a number, in black type on a thick legal document. They are the mothers and fathers, spouses, sisters and brothers of thousands of Colombians who were killed or vanished during a bloody civil conflict between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups whose victims have largely been civilians.
The list has at least 4,000 names, each one targeting Chiquita Brands International in U.S. lawsuits, claiming the produce giant’s payments and other assistance to the paramilitary groups amounted to supporting terrorists.
Cincinnati-based Chiquita in 2007 pleaded guilty to similar criminal charges brought by the Justice Department and paid a $25 million fine. But if the lawsuits succeed, plaintiffs’ lawyers estimate the damages against Chiquita could reach into the billions. The cases filed around the country are being consolidated before a South Florida federal judge who must decide whether to dismiss them or let them proceed.
“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, who filed one of the first lawsuits on behalf of Colombians.
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.
The top AUC leader, Carlos Castano, told Chiquita executives in a meeting that the money would be used to drive out the guerrillas and protect the company’s interests. For seven years, Chiquita made over 100 payments totaling $1.7 million to the AUC or affiliated organizations, according to court documents.
About half that money was paid after the U.S. government, on Sept. 10, 2001, declared the AUC a foreign terrorist organization, just as FARC had been designated years earlier. That made it a crime for anyone in the U.S. to do business with either paramilitary group.
Chiquita, however, said in court documents it was unaware of the AUC terrorist designation until late February 2003—some 18 months later—even though the news in 2001 was widely reported by the media, including leading national publications in the U.S. and Colombia and newspapers in Chiquita’s headquarters city of Cincinnati.