A statement given to the Colombian government by an ex-paramilitary leader could mean trouble for Chiquita Brands International as it tries to fight lawsuits about the firm’s payments to terrorist groups.
The statement — which was recently entered into the court record in the lawsuits — alleges the terrorist group had an "an open public relationship" with Chiquita in which it provided security services, as well as kidnapping and assassinating labor union leaders that caused problems for the company.
Jose Gregorio Mangones Lugo provided the statement to a Colombian tribunal that allows former terrorists to get reduced jail time for confessing to all of their crimes, according to an article on the AlterNet Web site.
Lugo is an ex-commander of the William Rivas Front of the United Defense Forces (AUC), a right-wing group that operated in the area where Chiquita and its suppliers grew bananas.
Lugo’s statement contradicts the claims made by Chiquita executives, who said the company was extorted by AUC into making the payments in order to keep its employees safe.
In March 2007, Cincinnati-based Chiquita pleaded guilty to paying AUC more than $1.7 million during a six-year period, from 1997-2004. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Chiquita will pay a $25 million criminal fine over five years.
The U.S. Justice Department lists about 50 payments made by Chiquita after the U.S. State Department designated the AUC as a terrorist organization in 2001. Despite warnings from their lawyers, Chiquita made at least 19 of the payments after the company voluntarily disclosed the payments to Justice Department officials in April 2003.
Human rights groups have said the payments led to the murders of thousands of peasants and workers in the region, including four U.S. missionaries.
In lawsuits filed in federal court in Florida, several families of people killed by the paramilitary groups are seeking compensation from Chiquita, and some shareholders are alleging breach of fiduciary duty by company executives connected to the payments.
The AlterNet article states that Lugo and other witnesses have said, ‘the AUC was originally hired by the companies to drive the leftist FARC guerillas out of the banana-growing region and protect their plantations from ‘the gangs of common delinquents that robbed their supplies and equipment.’
“Once the FARC was vanquished and order restored, the banana companies continued to pay the AUC to ‘pacify’ their work force, suppress the labor unions and terrorize peasant squatters seeking their own competing land claims,” it continues.
Read AlterNet’s full story here
In 1998, The Cincinnati Enquirer
published an 18-page special section about its investigation into Chiquita’s business practices. Articles alleged the company allowed cocaine smuggling on its ships and knowingly sprayed workers with hazardous pesticides, among other allegations.
After Chiquita learned that at least one reporter illegally accessed the company’s voice mail system to obtain information, the firm threatened to sue The Enquirer
. Shortly thereafter, the newspaper published a front-page apology for three consecutive days and removed the Chiquita material from its Web site. Also, the newspaper paid $14 million to Chiquita in a secret settlement uncovered by Editor & Publisher
At the time of the dispute, billionaire financier Carl Lindner Jr. was Chiquita’s CEO. Lindner is also founder of the United Dairy Farmers convenience store chain, ex-CEO of the Cincinnati Reds and a top contributor to the Republican Party.