Colombia: Chiquita to pay in para scandal

Colombian officials announced they will consider seeking the extradition of senior executives of Chiquita Brands International after the company pleaded guilty in US federal court to making payments to paramilitary groups. Chiquita, one of the world’s top banana producers, agreed to pay a fine of $25 million last week to the US Justice Department to settle the case. Chiquita admitted that from 1997 to 2004, its Colombia subsidiary paid $1.7 million to the paramilitaies. Chiquita said it voluntarily informed the Justice Department of its payments to the paramilitary groups in 2003, after their classification as terrorist organizations. The company said that the payments had been motivated by concern for the safety of employees, and that similar payments had been made to left-wing guerillas.

Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe told reporters that extradition “should be from here to there and from there to here.” Colombia has extradited hundreds of drug-trafficking suspects to the US since Uribe took office in 2002.

Chiquita’s chief executive from 2002 to 2004, Cyrus Freidheim Jr., told the board of directors of the Sun-Times Media Group, where he is currently chief executive, that he is among present and former Chiquita officials that may be subjects of the investigation in the United States.

Chiquita has a century of controversial involvement in Colombia. United Fruit Company, one of the companies that merged to create Chiquita, was long the real political power in Colombia’s banana-growing regions. Thousands of striking United Fruit workers were massacred in Colombia in 1928, an incident that made its way into One Hundred Years of Solitude, the epic novel by Gabriel García Márquez. In 2004, Chiquita sold Banadex, its Colombia unit, for about $43.5 million.

In 2003, a report by the Organization of American States said that a ship used by Banadex may have been used for an illicit shipment of 3,000 rifles for Colombian paramilitary groups. The chief prosecutor’s office in Colombia announced it will ask the US Justice Department for details about the shipment, thought to have been made in 2001. (NYT, March 19)

See our last posts on Colombia and the para scandal.