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Chiquita's US court settlement over paramilitary payments sparks outrage in Colombia

Chiquita's US court settlement over paramilitary payments sparks outrage in Colombia

Colombia's interior minister slammed a U.S. judge's approval of a US$25 million (euro18 million) fine for Chiquita Brands International Inc., saying Tuesday the company was able to "purchase impunity" for its payments to a drug-funded militia responsible for killing thousands of Colombians.
Rights groups said Chiquita should be barred from ever doing business in Colombia.
A U.S. federal court on Monday court imposed the fine on Chiquita Brands International Inc. as part plea agreement in which the company acknowledged paying about US$1.7 million between 1997 and 2004 to Colombian paramilitary groups.
The ruling sparked outrage within the staunchly pro-American government, as well as among victims of paramilitary violence.
"You can't help but feeling betrayed by the American justice system," said Interior Minister Carlos Holguin. "For US$25 million those who financed a mass massacre of Colombians were able to purchase impunity."
Cincinnati-based Chiquita had sales in 2006 totaling US$4.5 billion (euro3.2 billion).
Chiquita voluntarily alerted the Justice Department in April 2003 of the deals with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC for its Spanish initials. By that time, payments to the group and leftist rebels had been ongoing for 15 years.
The AUC has been responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia's half-century civil conflict and for a sizable percentage of the country's cocaine exports. The U.S. government designated the AUC a terrorist group in September 2001.
The fine, which also includes a five-year probation for Chiquita, is the largest imposed under U.S. counterterrorism laws. But in the eyes of most Colombians the penalty falls well short of providing justice to victims of the right-wing militias they funded.
The National Victims' Movement said it would request the Trade and Commerce Ministry to withdraw all commercial licenses granted to Chiquita so as to prevent the company or its subsidiaries from ever operating in Colombia again.
"What would happen if a Colombian company was accused of abetting the murder of workers in the United States," said Ivan Cepeda, head of the group, the country's largest representative of victims of paramilitary violence
Chiquita sold its Colombian subsidiary in 2004 but continues to buy Colombian bananas from independent suppliers through a third party. The company does not currently sell any products in Colombia, company spokesman Michael Mitchell said.
The government's ombudsman Volmar Perez said Tuesday the fine should be paid to the hundreds victims of paramilitary violence in the Gulf of Uraba region where Chiquita's operations were based.
Chiquita and its executives _ which were identified only by aliases and not charged in the Justice Department case _ are still facing a criminal investigation in Colombia. Prosecutors awaiting testimony from paramilitary warlords who once controlled the area have not decided whether to request the extradition of company executives.
Three civil lawsuits have also been filed in the United States on behalf of more than 150 victims' families.
Chiquita said in a court filing Friday that it was forced to make the payments and was acting only to ensure the safety of its workers.
"Chiquita was extorted," the company said. "The threats facing Chiquita were very real, a point the government does not ... contest."