WASHINGTON - For more than a decade, leftist guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia have kidnapped or killed civilians, trade union leaders, police and soldiers by the hundreds and profited by shipping cocaine and heroin to the United States.
In that time, several American multinational corporations have been accused of essentially underwriting those criminal activities - in violation of U.S. law - by providing cash, vehicles and other financial assistance as insurance against attacks on their employees and facilities in the South American nation.
But only one such company - Chiquita Brands International Inc. - has been charged criminally in the United States. Now, a showdown is looming that pits some members of Congress against the Justice Department and the multinationals - including an American coal-mining company and Coca-Cola bottlers.
The lawmakers say that, in the cases of U.S. corporations in Colombia, the Justice Department has failed to adequately enforce U.S. laws that make it a crime to knowingly provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization - and they have opened their own investigation.
Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), who is leading the effort, has questioned whether the Bush administration is putting the interests of U.S. conglomerates ahead of its counter-terrorism agenda.
Even the plea agreement reached with Chiquita in March - in which it acknowledged making the illegal payments - has been criticized as far too lenient by many outside legal experts and some high-ranking Justice Department prosecutors.
"I think they've escaped any kind of appropriate sanctions," Delahunt said in an interview last week.
"We will take a good, hard look at how American multinationals operate around the world, using Colombia as a model," said Delahunt, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight. "It really deserves an exhaustive effort to examine where we need legislation and if there are gaps in our criminal code that allow U.S. corporations to aid or abet violence in other countries that erode our credibility and our moral standing in the world."
The Bush administration has declared that a hallmark of its counter-terrorism policy is to go after the financiers of terrorism just as aggressively as the terrorists themselves - anywhere in the world. But the situation in Colombia underscores the difficulty in prosecuting such goals when it conflicts with American economic interests abroad and trade relations with friendly governments. Making the matter particularly sensitive, the U.S. is in the midst of negotiating a free-trade agreement with Colombia, and sends it billions annually in military and other aid.
"Do our economic interests trump the war on terror? Are we making trade-offs?" Delahunt asked. "If we are, at the very least the public should know about it."
Lance Compa, an international trade specialist at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, acknowledged that there were many competing priorities in Colombia.
"But the general proposition that gross human rights violations should be weighed against trade policy and foreign policy is a mistake," Compa said. "The paramilitaries have infiltrated the highest levels of the [Colombian] government, and the Bush administration is looking the other way.
"It makes it all the more incumbent on U.S. policymakers to put a stop to any corporate dealings with paramilitary death squads."
The right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, initially began as a security force in response to leftist atrocities, but it quickly transformed in the 1990s into a brutal organization with ties to Colombia's military, political and business establishment. The State Department designated the AUC a terrorist organization in 2001, making it a crime to provide the group with financial or other support.
Financial dealings with the paramilitaries have also been outlawed under a federal "drug kingpin" statute, because such groups are believed to supply 90% of the cocaine and 50% of the heroin consumed in the U.S.
For more than four years, lawmakers have been requesting information from the Justice Department about whether it is investigating "credible allegations" against some of the American firms, including some that were named in detailed civil lawsuits and forwarded to prosecutors, according to letters sent to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and his predecessor, John Ashcroft.
The lawmakers are particularly concerned about claims that the Drummond Co. coal-mining operations paid paramilitaries from the AUC to kill three trade union leaders who were trying to organize workers at its coal mines in 2001. Drummond has been accused in a civil lawsuit first filed in 2002 of using the AUC as a de facto security force that intimidated employees to keep them from unionizing and demanding higher wages.
Drummond has strenuously denied the claims and is fighting them in a civil trial that began this month.
In a letter to Ashcroft on June 25, 2003, four lawmakers on House foreign affairs oversight committees urged thorough investigations of the Drummond case and allegations against two U.S.-owned Coca-Cola bottling firms in Colombia that are also accused in lawsuits of colluding with the paramilitaries. The bottlers, which are independent of the Atlanta-based beverage giant, have denied any wrongdoing.
Nearly a year later, Assistant Atty. Gen. William E. Moschella sent a four-paragraph response that said: "We can assure you that this matter is being carefully reviewed." Moschella said the Justice Department could not comment on any case until there were public filings.
The lawmakers said they had been unable to get even basic information about whether an investigation was underway.
A lower priority?
Two senior Justice Department officials acknowledged that violent Colombian groups, particularly the AUC, were not as high a priority as Islamist jihad groups because they had not attacked American interests such as embassies.
But critics say that the Colombian groups have killed and kidnapped more people than Al Qaeda and that the Justice Department's selective enforcement of U.S. laws opens it up to charges of having double standards in the war on terrorism.
The Justice Department says it has aggressively pursued corporate financiers of terrorism, in Colombia and elsewhere.
"The notion that the Justice Department is somehow putting the interests of U.S. companies ahead of its national security priorities is baseless," said spokesman Dean Boyd. "The Justice Department takes seriously any and all allegations about U.S. persons or entities that may have engaged in transactions with specially designated terrorist organizations."
The senior Justice Department officials confirmed that they had launched a probe of Drummond at least several years ago, and that they had looked at other U.S. firms as well. "We were trying to look into any allegation there was of any company doing what Chiquita was doing," one said of the Drummond allegations. "I can't say we pursued every one of them."
Kenneth L. Wainstein, assistant attorney general for national security, said he could not discuss ongoing federal actions.
The lawmakers' concerns intensified after Chiquita reached a plea agreement with the Justice Department in March, in which it admitted having paid the AUC at least $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004, and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, before that. Chiquita said it did so to protect its workers, contending that the guerrilla and paramilitary groups attacked corporations that refused.
Colombia's chief prosecutor, Mario Iguaran, has accused Chiquita and the AUC of cultivating "a criminal relationship" based on "money and arms and, in exchange, the bloody pacification of Uraba," the region where the Cincinnati-based firm's banana plantations were based until it sold them in 2004.
In May, six congressmen wrote a follow-up letter to Gonzales, asking whether the Justice Department had investigated their "grave concerns" that other companies, particularly Drummond, might be engaging in similar activity. The lawmakers said that Iguaran had launched a criminal investigation of Drummond and that though the allegations were unproved, they were "sufficiently credible" for the Justice Department to launch criminal proceedings of its own.
"If no such probe has begun, we strongly urge that one be started immediately," wrote Reps. Delahunt, Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), George Miller (D-Martinez), Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.).
The Justice Department has not responded to that letter, the lawmakers say.
"In the wake of 9/11, it is shocking to me that allegations of payments to terrorist groups have not been aggressively investigated and prosecuted by the Justice Department," Engel said at a June 28 congressional hearing on the issue, the first of what the lawmakers have pledged will be many.
"I can only imagine the force and speed with which the entire prosecutorial force of the United States government would come down on a company alleged to have assisted Al Qaeda or Hezbollah," Engel added.
The congressmen, all top members of foreign affairs panels, vow to haul in top officials from Drummond, Chiquita and other companies (which they would not name) that have done business in Colombia to testify under oath.
At the June congressional hearing, a former Colombian military captain turned AUC soldier; a human rights worker; and a union leader testified that numerous U.S. corporations besides Chiquita and Drummond had been routinely paying off violent groups in Colombia.
This spring, former AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso and group spokesman Ivan Duque alleged that the payoffs were pervasive and long-standing, involving multinational fruit companies such as Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. and Dole Food Co., as well as oil conglomerates and other firms. Del Monte and Dole have denied the allegations.
Many more AUC commanders intend to begin speaking publicly about the financing of their reign of terror "by the banana industry, some coal companies, big national businesses," Duque said in a published interview.
"Those who broke the law must face the consequences, just as we are."
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times