Families of victims in Colombia’s civil war are suing the biggest banana importer in the United States for its role in funding illegal armed groups in the country’s conflict.
Relatives of 931 people killed by left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries want compensation after Chiquita Brands admitted paying the groups at various times during the conflict to protect its banana plantations in the Caribbean Urabá region.
One of the filings made with a US federal court in Washington DC on Tuesday relates to 254 murders by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc.
Chiquita paid the guerrilla movement between 1987 and 1999 to defend its plantations from attack by a rival guerrilla force, the Popular Liberation Army.
The second filing concerns 677 victims of the right-wing United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which received money from Chiquita after the militia took control of the area where the company’s plantations were located.
In the 1990s Colombia was wracked by violence as Marxist guerrillas battled the AUC and the country’s military in a war marked by massacres and other atrocities, where most of the victims were civilians caught in the crossfire.
These latest filings bring to over 4,000 deaths in Colombia for which Chiquita is being sued for civil damages by families of victims. The civil cases follow Chiquita’s admission in 2007 that it paid $1.7 million (€1.2 million) to the AUC between 1997 and 2004 and acknowledged previous payments to other groups.
That admission followed a secret investigation by the US justice department into violations of US counter-terrorism laws. The company, which was then represented by current US attorney general Eric Holder, was fined $25 million to be paid over four five years. Chiquita sold its Colombian subsidiary in 2004. Its revenues in 2009 totalled $3.47 billion.
“They just considered these payments part of the business of growing bananas. Chiquita had a policy of paying whoever it was they had to pay off and to this day still consider themselves the victims in all this,” says Paul Wolf, the human rights lawyer representing many of the families.
Mr Wolf says Chiquita’s involvement with the AUC went beyond paying them to protect its plantations and included granting the group access to Chiquita facilities for the illegal shipment of thousands of weapons into the country.
In a 2009 interview with Al Jazeera, the former commander of the AUC’s “banana bloc” admitted murdering 70 union members in 1995 alone. “One of my tasks was to make people work and to avoid strikes against the bosses. There were so many murders already in the area, they wanted to bring the banana region under their control,” said Ever Veloza.
Chiquita was originally called the United Fruit Company and has a long record of human rights abuses in Latin America. In 1954 it successfully lobbied for the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala after he pledged to nationalise the company’s plantations in the country. A massacre of striking United Fruit Workers in Colombia in 1928 forms the climax of Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Despite having pleaded guilty to the criminal charges made against it by the US justice department, Chiquita is fighting the Colombian families’ claims.