|Paramilitary groups paid by Chiquita banana are considered terrorist organisations by the US [AP]
Contrary to claims by Chiquita Brands International that its payments to Colombian paramilitary and guerrilla groups over more than a decade were extorted, internal company documents released here Thursday strongly suggest that the transactions provided specific benefits to the banana giant.
The documents, which were published by the National Security Archive (NSA), an independent research group, raised questions about the factual basis for a 2007 plea agreement between Chiquita and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) under which the company was fined $25mn for paying the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which was designated a terrorist group by the State Department in 2001.
Under the agreement, which capped a four-year investigation, government attorneys accepted the company's contention that the payments to the AUC paramilitaries, which began in 1997, amounted to "protection" money and that Chiquita never received any actual services in exchange for them.
But some of the documents released by the NSA appeared to contradict that contention. They detail Chiquita's handling of what the company referred to as "sensitive payments" from 1990, when it was paying left-wing guerrilla groups active in Uraba, to 2003 when a PowerPoint presentation obtained by the NSA presents options for how to conceal improper payments.
A March 2000 memo, for example, recorded a conversation between Chiquita senior counsel Robert Thomas, the memo's author, and managers from the company's wholly-owned subsidiary, Banadex, in which the latter indicate that Santa Marta-based paramilitaries formed a front company to disguise "the real purpose of providing security" to Banadex's local operations.
Thomas quotes one participant, whose name is deleted from the document, as saying "we should continue making the payments; we can't get the same level of support from the military."
"Chiquita's apparent quid pro quo with guerrillas and paramilitaries responsible for countless killings belies the company's 2007 plea deal with the Justice Department," said Michael Evans, NSA's chief researcher on Colombia. "What we still don't know is why US prosecutors overlooked what appears to be clear evidence that Chiquita benefited from these transactions."
The Justice Department did not return calls about the case. Ed Loyd, a company spokesman, insisted that "Chiquita made payments solely out of a well-grounded fear of retaliation against its employees if the company refused" and defended the plea agreement.
"The Department of Justice, which… is charged with objectively analysing the facts, reviewed ALL of these documents as part of an exhaustive investigation that lasted nearly four years," he stated in an email. "[It] found NO evidence that Chiquita shared any of the murderous goals of the terrorist groups it was forced to pay."
The document dump took place on the same day as a meeting between Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and US president Barack Obama to finalise a so-called "Action Plan on Labour Rights" – a deal meant to secure Congressional approval of the countries' long pending Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
The FTA, negotiated under the last George W. Bush administration, has been stalled precisely over charges by the pact's critics that Bogota has not done enough to dismantle paramilitary groups responsible for killing thousands of labour activists over the past two decades.
Nearly 150 unionists have been murdered in the past three years alone, according to Colombia's main labour rights group Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS).
"I think it's important for people to bear in mind that there's a serious cost to doing business in Colombia that goes beyond simple extortion payments, or whatever you want to call them, and can be counted by the number of people killed by these illegal armed groups," Evans said.
The AUC are supposed to have been disbanded from 2003-2006, but successor groups and criminal bands, or "bacrim", continue to dominate large swathes of the country.
"It is of great concern that the US is moving forward with an FTA with Colombia without addressing the full dismantlement of Colombian paramilitary groups," said Gimena Sanchez, an Andean expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.
"As such, we worry about the proliferation of more Chiquita-like cases," she continued. "Currently in the Choco region, 23 oil palm industrialists are under indictment for links to paramilitarism and violent displacement."
Paramilitaries linked to police
Also concerning to critics of the Washington-Bogota trade pact is a history of complicity by Colombian police, military, judicial, and political officials with these illegal armed groups.
Indeed, the NSA documents suggest that state security forces encouraged and facilitated Chiquita's payments to the AUC, and were even recipients of such funds.
While most payments in the early 1990s were paid to guerrilla groups, an August 1993 memo indicates that the company subsidiary in Turbo had begun channelling security payments to the Colombian Army through a "banana association" known as "Agura" at a price of three cents per box of bananas shipped.
By 1998, the documents suggest that the company had begun paying the AUC through legal Convivir militias that then-governor of Antoquia Department – and future president – Alvaro Uribe was actively promoting.
One 1997 memo also notes that Convivir militias "operate under military supervision (and have offices at the military bases)" and that "their sole function is to provide information on guerrilla movements."
Another 2000 memo by Thomas described a 1997 meeting in which the AUC's notorious leader, Carlos Castano first suggested to Banadex managers that they support a new Convivir, called La Tagua del Darien.
According to the memo, the Banadex officials said they had "no choice but to attend the meeting," because "refusing to meet would antagonise the Colombia military, local and state government officials, and Autodefensas."
The newly released documents consist of more than 5,500 pages of internal Chiquita memos obtained by the NSA from the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act.
They are also likely to be used by plaintiffs in an ongoing civil lawsuit here against Chiquita on behalf of dozens of Colombians killed by right-wing paramilitaries, notably the AUC.
In addition to fuelling the FTA debate, the newly disclosed documents are also likely to bolster half a dozen federal lawsuits against Chiquita on behalf of the families of hundreds of AUC victims in the banana-growing region of Uraba where Chiquita and its affiliates are active.
"They reinforce the claim… that the company was knowingly complicit in, and thus liable for, the atrocities committed by the AUC in Uraba while on the Chiquita payroll," said Arturo Carrillo, director of George Washington University's International Human Rights Clinic, which is representing plaintiffs in one of the suits.
"One can only hope that the revealing information obtained and published by the NSA will lead to greater accountability for Chiquita's criminal actions in Colombia," Carillo said, "since the company's plea agreement with the Justice Department, which has refused to prosecute Chiquita executives for wrongdoing, amounts to little more than a slap on the corporate wrist."
This article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.