Chiquita found liable for paying off right-wing death squad that killed labor organizers in Colombia

Chiquita logo Alexander Pohl/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Chiquita logo Alexander Pohl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Chiquita Brands International, the banana giant, has been found liable for funding a right-wing Colombian paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), that targeted labor organizers, and must now pay $38.8 million in damages, Al Jazeera reported.

“This historic ruling marks the first time that an American jury has held a major U.S. corporation liable for complicity in serious human rights abuses in another country,” according to a press release from the plaintiff EarthRights International.

In 2007, Chiquita admitted in a sentencing agreement to paying the AUC protection money from 2001 to 2004, though company representatives insisted it was a victim of extortion. A U.S. court ordered it to pay a $25 million fine, the National Security Archive noted. No executives who authorized the payments were identified, much less prosecuted.

The six-week-long trial at a federal court in Florida included testimony from the families of victims, Colombian military officials and Chiquita executives.

"Testifying on May 14, Evans described the '1006 summary' he created for the plaintiffs tracking ten years of Chiquita’s paramilitary payments and based exclusively on thousands of internal records produced by Chiquita in the case," the National Security Archive noted. "Evans explained how he sorted through thousands of payment request forms, security situation reports, spreadsheets, auditing documents, depositions, legal memoranda, and other documents from Chiquita’s own internal records to create the summary, which tracks over one hundred payments to the AUC, most of them funneled through 'Convivir' self-defense groups that acted as legal fronts for the paramilitaries."

The claim against Chiquita is that the company still paid the AUC nearly $2 million despite knowing that the paramilitary group was engaged in considerable violence: kidnappings, extortion, torture, forced disappearances and murder.

The West Palm Beach trial only focused on the nine of the cases brought against Chiquita by victims of AUC violence, among hundreds. The jury found the company liable in eight of the cases presented.

"The verdict does not bring back the husbands and sons who were killed, but it sets the record straight and places accountability for funding terrorism where it belongs: at Chiquita’s doorstep," said Agnieszka Fryszman, a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, The New York Times reported.

According to jurors, Chiquita had “failed to act as a reasonable businessperson”; the company had "knowingly provided substantial assistance to the AUC” that created “a foreseeable risk of harm to others”; and the company had failed to prove that AUC threatened it or that they had  “no reasonable alternative” to paying AUC.

Chiquita has vowed to appeal the decision.

“The situation in Colombia was tragic for so many,” the company said in a statement, per the Times. “However, that does not change our belief that there is no legal basis for these claims."