According to a recent report, Colombian national prosecutors are reopening a previously closed criminal investigation into the role of the banana company Chiquita Brands International, Inc., and thirteen of its directors, in financing paramilitary violence, such as torture and extrajudicial executions, in the 1990s and early 2000s. Chiquita’s role in abetting paramilitary violence is the subject of ERI’s lawsuit Doe v. Chiquita.
In addition to Chiquita, six other banana companies, including Del Monte and Dole, reportedly will be subject to the prosecutor’s investigation.
In 2007, Chiquita pled guilty to U.S. federal criminal charges and paid a $25 million fine, for making more than 100 payments, totaling more than $1.7 million, to the paramilitary organization known as the AUC, which had been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. government.
Doe v. Chiquita and several other federal civil lawsuits target Chiquita’s role in funding, arming, and otherwise supporting paramilitary organizations in Colombia in their campaign of terror against trade unionists, banana workers, political organizers, social activists, and the civilian population in general. The lawsuits allege that Chiquita engaged in this practice of funding paramilitary activity amounting to crimes against humanity in order to maintain its profitable control over Colombia’s banana growing regions and to produce bananas in an environment free from labor disputes and social unrest. Judge Kenneth A. Marra of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida has ruled that despite objections from Chiquita, the claims for violations of international human rights should be allowed to proceed in federal court.
But until this recent decision by Colombian national prosecutors to investigate Chiquita’s financing of paramilitary activity, criminal prosecution of Chiquita’s directors in Colombia had ground to a halt. A special prosecutor in Medellin originally tasked with the investigation reportedly decided to end the investigation on the grounds that, based on the evidence collected within the permissible window of investigation, the evidence was consistent with Chiquita’s claims that either the payments were made in good faith without knowing that they would end up in the hands of the AUC, or that the payments were made through coercion and duress.
The Medellin prosecutor’s decision to end the investigation was criticized at the time by those who argued that there are no limits on the window of investigation for complicity in crimes against humanity, and that the prosecutor improperly discounted testimony by paramilitary leaders about the nature of Chiquita’s payments. The latter testimony led the Justice and Peace Tribunal, an entity established as part of Colombia’s transitional justice program, to call for Colombian national prosecutors to thoroughly investigate Chiquita’s role in financing paramilitary activities.
Reassessing the available evidence—paying particular attention to the extended nature of the payments over time without the company receiving any direct benefit in return—the national prosecutors were much more skeptical than the Medellin prosecutor about the ignorance and innocence of Chiquita’s directors. Rather, the national prosecutors argued that the evidence permits of little other interpretation than that the directors knew where the payments were headed and that they accepted it.
The decision by Colombian prosecutors to reopen the criminal investigation thus brings the Colombian penal process back in line with the growing trend both within Colombia and in the United States recognizing that Chiquita’s financing of paramilitary activities should have consequences for the company and its officials.