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Colombian prosecutor probing U.S. firms in Washington visit

Colombian prosecutor probing U.S. firms in Washington visit

The country's chief prosecutor stood between the white plastic-sheathed remains of two dismembered teenage sisters. On the rust-colored dirt around him lay remains of nearly 60 newly unearthed victims of paramilitary death squads.
Not just the executioners but those who bankrolled them must be brought to justice, Mario Iguaran told reporters last week at the mass grave in Colombia's eastern plains.
"You can clearly see that they didn't pay for security, but for blood," said Iguaran, who is in Washington D.C. this week seeking aid for his overburdened office and help obtaining evidence against U.S.-based multinationals he's investigating for allegedly financing death squads.
Over the past year, authorities have jailed paramilitary bosses and their political cronies on charges of building private armies to eliminate mutual enemies, steal land and enrich themselves.
With thousands of victims still to be unearthed, Iguaran is now going after the remaining axis of the paramilitary project: the businesses that helped paid the bills.
Among U.S. multinationals into which Iguaran has opened investigations are Chiquita Brands and the Alabama-based coal company Drummond Co. Inc. They are sure to be subjects of his meetings with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Monday and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Tuesday.
Fruit giant Chiquita agreed in March to pay US$25 million (euro18 million) to settle with the U.S. Department of Justice after acknowledging that its wholly owned Colombian subsidiary, Banadex, secretly funneled US$1.7 million (euro1.25 million) to the death squads operating in zones where it had banana plantations.
In 2001, a Banadex ship was used to unload 3,000 rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition for the paramilitaries. At the time, the paramilitaries were consolidating control of the Uraba banana region through massacres and assassinations. Chiquita later sold Banadex but still buys Colombian bananas.
A number of leading Colombians have demanded the extradition of the involved U.S.-based Chiquita executives to stand trial.
Cincinnati-based Chiquita says it was a victim of paramilitary extortion. In a statement it said its payments to the militias "were always motivated by our good faith concern for the safety of our employees."
Iguaran disagrees.
"This was a criminal relationship," he said in announcing his probe. "Money and arms and, in exchange, the bloody pacification of Uraba."
U.S. lawmakers are taking notice.
Last week, Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, called for an investigation into the practices here of both Chiquita and Drummond.
The latter is being sued by the families of three union activists murdered in 2001 while in its employ who allege Drummond paid paramilitaries to have the men killed. The suit is to be heard this summer by a federal judge in Alabama.
Drummond denies the charges and says its executives have had no dealings with any of Colombia's armed groups.
Witnesses for the plaintiffs contend Drummond's security team worked closely with paramilitaries. One security coordinator employed by Drummond, retired army Col. Julian Villate, has been accused by opposition lawmakers of conspiring to assassinate leftists and union members.
Villate, who worked for the U.S. embassy two years ago, has not answered the charges, which Drummond calls baseless.
The paramilitaries were originally created to counteract leftist rebels, who have long targeted multinationals, bombing oil pipelines and, in Drummond's case, coal trains bound for its Caribbean port.
Businesses saw backing paramilitaries as a lesser of evils: contribute or be bled by rebel extortion.
Many jailed paramilitary bosses think that just as they were compelled to confess their crimes under a peace pact with the government, so should their pinstriped backers.
The paramilitaries' main spokesman, Ivan Duque, told The Associated Press in Medellin's Itagui prison this month that many commanders intend to begin speaking publicly about "the financing by the banana industry, some coal companies, big national businesses."
"Those who broke the law," he said, "must face the consequences, just as we are."
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AP writers Darcy Crowe and Frank Bajak in Bogota contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-05-15 06:12 GMT+08:00