A federal judge in Florida ruled Nov. 29 that victims of right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia may sue banana giant Chiquita Brands under US jurisdiction. Judge Kenneth Marra rejected Chiquita's argument that the case should be heard in Colombia rather than the United States, clearing the way for the ground-breaking suit to advance toward trial. The company no longer has assets in Colombia, so any damages awarded by that country's courts would be unenforceable. "Our clients chose to litigate in the United States because it is the only forum where they can litigate safely and where they can be sure that Chiquita will pay," said attorney Marco Simons of Earth Rights International (ERI).
Chiquita Brands in March 2007 was fined $25 million by a US court after being found guilty of paying $1.7 million to paramilitaries between 1997 and 2004. The paramilitaries were at that time part of the United Colombian Self-Defense Forces (AUC), then a "designated terrorist organization," making the company's payments a federal crime under US law. However, the $25 million was paid to the US government, with the families of the victims receiving nothing.
The multinational, which ended its Colombian operations in 2004, claimed that it had paid the money to the paramilitaries "under pressure." Since then, testimony from demobilized AUC leaders has indicated that far from being extortion, it was in fact Chiquita that initiated contact with the paramilitaries. (Colombia Reports, Dec. 6; ERI, Nov. 30)