Colombia: ex-para names US banana companies in murder of trade unionists

Dole Food Company and Chiquita Brands International paid a Colombian terrorist organization to perform protection services that included murdering trade unionists, demobilized paramilitary José Gregorio Mongones said in an affidavit released Dec. 6. The testimony is the centerpiece of two civil lawsuits against Chiquita and Dole filed by family members of victims of paramilitary violence in Colombia. Both lawsuits accuse the companies of funding the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the country’s largest paramilitary organization, formally demobilized in 2006.

Mongones, better known by his alias “Carlos Tijeras,” assumed the command of the AUC’s William Rivas Front in the banana-growing department of Magdalena in March 2002, inheriting a protection arrangement in which Chiquita paid the group “three cents on the dollar per box of bananas shipped from Colombia,” according to his affidavit. Dole paid the paramilitaries a tax of 70,000 pesos per hectare of land in the Front’s area of control in the Department of Magdalena, the statement said. In return, Mongones said, the William Rivas Front protected the companies from threats posed by groups including leftist guerrillas, hostile unions, and common thieves.

Mongones names 12 people whose assassinations he says he ordered after Dole informed him that they belonged to or sympathized with leftist guerrillas. In all, he has confessed to ordering more than 500 murders. His confessions have come since the Peace, Justice, and Reparation Process began in 2006, under the terms of which paramilitaries receive a maximum of eight years in prison if they confess to their crimes.

Chiquita pled guilty in 2007 to paying over $1.7 million to the AUC, a State Department-designated terrorist group since 2001, and the company paid $25 million in fines. Heirs to the victims of paramilitary violence filed a civil suit against Chiquita shortly thereafter. Current U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder defended Chiquita in the Justice Department suit that ended in 2007.

Dole denied supporting Colombian paramilitaries in a press release dated April 29, the day after 73 heirs of murdered Colombians filed a civil suit against the company in Los Angeles. “The allegations in the complaint are based on nothing more than the false confessions of convicted terrorists from Colombia, who had every motive to lie about their activities in order to minimize their jail time for their terrorist crimes,” the press release said. Dole’s media relations contact said in an email that the company’s “comments are unchanged” from those in the April release.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Terry Collingsworth, disagreed, saying in an interview that Tijeras and the other demobilized paramilitaries “are going to get their years based on how many people they killed, not whether they turn Dole in.” The involvement of multinational companies in paramilitary violence is “not a factor at all in their criminal cases” in Colombia, he added.

Collingsworth says former paramilitary commanders are talking about their alleged involvement with Dole out of anger at the Colombian government for not extending amnesty to them in exchange for demobilization. The Colombian Congress voted not to extend amnesty to demobilized paramilitaries in the 2005 Law of Peace and Justice, although the law provides for reduced sentences of up to eight years for those who testify about their crimes.

“They feel like they got sold out. They’ve got nothing to lose so they’re confessing. And they’re going get eight years so they might as well tell the complete story and talk about who else was involved in it,” Collingsworth said of the ex-paramilitary commanders in an interview.

Juan Smith for NACLA News, Dec. 14

See our last posts on Colombia and the bananagate scandal.