The United States Supreme Court announced today that it will not hear Cardona v. Chiquita Brands International, a lawsuit on behalf of victims of terrorism and crimes against humanity in Colombia. This landmark case could have decided whether U.S. courts can hold corporations accountable for human rights abuses they commit abroad under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a federal law that allows foreigners to sue for violations of international human rights law. By declining to hear the case, the Supreme Court has created yet another obstacle in the path of victims seeking remedies for abusive corporate actions abroad, and allows a U.S. corporation to get away with financing terrorism without accountability to its victims in U.S. courts.
EarthRights International (ERI) represents Colombians who were tortured and whose relatives were murdered by paramilitary death squads financed by Chiquita. From 1997-2004, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC), used Chiquita’s financial support to spread fear in the banana-growing region of Urabá, Colombia. The AUC tortured and killed thousands of villagers, labor leaders, and community organizers who were suspected of favoring leftist guerrillas or making trouble for the plantation owners.
Among the plaintiffs is Jane Doe 5, whose husband John Doe 9 was a labor union president from the banana growing region of Urabá. The complaint alleges that the AUC detained, tortured, killed and dismembered John Doe 9 in retaliation for his union activities, and that “Chiquita benefited from the death of John Doe 9 by removing a labor activist who threatened the stability and profitability of Chiquita’s operations.” In total, the families of over 4,000 victims of paramilitary violence in the banana-growing regions of Colombia are suing Chiquita, and all believe that the deaths and torture benefited Chiquita by suppressing labor organizers and community leaders who might have driven up labor costs or supported Chiquita’s political opponents.
Families of the victims filed a petition to the Supreme Court in December 2014 after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed their ATS claims last July. The Eleventh Circuit held that despite the fact that Chiquita is a U.S. company that made decisions in the U.S. to finance paramilitary death squads, in violation of U.S. criminal law, the victims’ claims under the ATS lacked sufficient connection to the United States to be heard in U.S. courts.
For human rights advocates around the world, this decision is particularly baffling considering Chiquita admitted to paying the paramilitaries in response to a U.S. government investigation. In 2007, Chiquita pled guilty to federal criminal charges for providing material support to the terrorist group, the only corporation ever convicted of this crime. In its statement during Chiquita’s sentencing hearing, the U.S. Department of Justice expressed concern for the innocent Colombians who were killed by the bullets that Chiquita’s money bought, but their families have seen no remedies thus far.
Despite the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the ATS claims, parts of the Cardona case continue in a federal district court in Florida. Yet after eight years in the courts, there is still no end in sight. “Justice for John Doe 9’s family and all the other victims of Chiquita’s human rights violations is long overdue,” says Marco Simons, ERI’s General Counsel. “We will do everything we can to bring this case to trial so Chiquita and its executives can answer for their decision to put profit before human life.”
The case at the Supreme Court is Cardona v. Chiquita Brands Int’l, Inc., Docket No. 14-777, which includes the class action John Doe I v. Chiquita, originally filed in 2007 with several other Chiquita cases and coordinated as No. 08-MD-01916 in the Southern District of Florida. In addition to ERI, counsel for the plaintiffs include Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, Judith Brown Chomsky, Arturo Carrillo, and John DeLeon.