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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bringing Chiquita Brands to Justice

The history of Latin America, particularly its domination by the US, is inseparable from the machinations of the United Fruit Company. The interventions of the UFC are the legends of anti-imperialists in the South, especially its most esteemed writers and intellectuals. No corporate entity has demonstrated a more callous disregard for the independence of Central and South American countries, using bribes, extortion, subsidies, and coup-mongering to influence domestic politics to its advantage.

In its latest incarnation as Chiquita Brands International, the company was caught red-handed funding Colombian terrorists, the notorious Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, a collection of right-wing paramilitaries responsible for the assassination and disappearance of tens of thousands of Colombians perceived as in opposition to the big landowners and corporations. From the umbrella organization’s inception in 1997, Chiquita funded the paramilitaries through its Colombian subsidiary, Banadex, S.A. In 2007, a US District Court confirmed this connection and payments to AUC totaling $1.7 million through 2004. Testimony showed that one shipment alone – off-loaded from a Chiquita ship – put 3000 assault rifles and ammunition into the hands of the terrorists.

The matter was forced to the attention of US courts because of the September 2001 designation by the US government of AUC as a terrorist organization, a fact too obvious for even the Bush administration to deny.

Court proceedings indicate that Chiquita executives were aware of the collaboration with the terrorists at least by 2002. Moreover, despite a Justice Department finding and the advise of outside counsel, the firm continued to fund AUC from April 24, 2003 until February 4, 2004. In order to avoid disclosure and face personal incrimination, the executives agreed to a $25 million settlement of fines to the US Justice Department.

Interestingly, the current Attorney General, Eric Holder, legally represented Chiquita Brands before the US District Court, a dubious credential for his appointment as the top judicial officer in the US.

As matters were left after the settlement, Chiquita was, of course, instructed to desist in its support for the terrorists. But, according to a Colombian newspaper account (El Espectador, September 5, 2009), the Columbian Attorney General’s office has disclosed evidence that Chiquita has, through closely allied companies, continued to finance terrorist organizations in Colombia from 2004 through 2007.

The Colombian prosecutor’s office contends that Chiquita Brand engaged two cover firms, Invesmar SA (through Colombian subsidiary, Banacol SA) and Olinsa, to continue the engagement with AUC. Testimony has been taken from one judicially protected terrorist leader that Banacol SA paid around 3 billion Colombian Pesos to his group. He affirmed that he served as a liaison with Chiquita Brands and that they agreed to an arrangement of three cents on the dollar for the paramilitaries from every box of bananas produced.

An accounting examination by the Attorney General’s Office of the Banacol SA confirmed a voluntary diversion of funds to the terrorist groupings.

Olinsa was set up in 2005 with an extremely generous loan from Chiquita Brands at interest rates well below those prevailing in Colombia. Nearly all of its business is conducted with Chiquita Brands. Ninety-four per cent of Olinsa’s shares are held by an ex-employee of Chiquita Brands, according to the accounting report of the Attorney General’s office.

These two firms, strongly suspected of continuing support for AUC, are demonstrably linked to Chiquita Brands International (other related firms are also under investigation). As the investigation continues, all agree that testimony by US Chiquita executives would be decisive in concluding the matter. Unfortunately, this is hindered by the confidentiality agreement secured with the settlement of the $25 million fine.

It would be most helpful if the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, would re-open the case in the US in light of the findings of the Colombian Attorney General. Surely, the evidence suggesting the continued aid by Chiquita Brands to AUC warrants cooperation on the part of the US authorities. If the support continued after the 2007 settlement, it constitutes both contempt for US law and flagrantly criminal activity on the part of the corporation.

For Attorney General Holder, cooperating with the Colombian investigation is not only a legal duty, but a test of his commitment to equal justice given his former role as counsel for Chiquita Brands. Any reluctance to follow the leads opened by Colombian authorities will surely risk the taint of prejudice in favor of his former client.

Every effort should be made to bring the Chiquita investigation to the attention of elected officials and the Justice Department.

Zoltan Zigedy

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