Colombia seeks eight in Chiquita terrorist scandal

The Colombian government says that it will seek the extradition of eight unnamed people affiliated with the US banana giant Chiquita Brands International for their alleged involvement in the company’s payments to illegal right-wing paramilitary groups. The Chicago Tribune reports March 22 that Colombia’s chief prosecutor, Mario Iguaran, has formally requested from the US Justice Department documents relating to Chiquita’s payment of $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a group that the United States labels a terrorist organization.

Chiquita pleaded guilty March 19 in US federal court to making payments to the AUC, and agreed to pay a $25 million fine, payable over five years. As part of the plea agreement, the US government will not publicly identify the senior Chiquita executives who approved the illegal payments.

Speaking in Bogotá, Iguaran denied Chiquita’s claims that the payments were made under duress. “The relationship was not one of the extortionist and the extorted but a criminal relationship,” Iguaran told reporters. “It’s a much bigger, more macabre plan,” he added. “Who wouldn’t know what an illegal armed group like the AUC does…by exterminating and annihilating its enemies. When you pay a group like this you are conscious of what they are doing.”

The AP reported March 21 that Iguaran said in an interview with a Colombian radio station that he will demand the US hand over the eight suspects, whose identities have not been disclosed. “They must be judged in Colombia,” Iguaran said.

According to the US Department of Justice, Chiquita began making payments to the AUC in 1997 through its Colombian shipping operation, Banadex. The payments began when the AUC’s then-leader, Carlos Castaño, met with a senior Banadex executive and implied that failure to make payments would result in physical harm to the company’s workers and property.

The United States designated the AUC a foreign terrorist organization on September 10, 2001. Despite warnings from lawyers who advised the company to leave Colombia, Chiquita apparently continued to pay the group. In April 2003, the company’s board of directors learned of the payments, and later that month confessed to the Department of Justice, which told Chiquita to stop paying. Nevertheless, the payments apparently continued through February 2004.

Additionally, according to a report by the Organization of American States, in 2001 Banadex helped divert 3,000 Nicaraguan AK-47 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to the AUC.

Chiquita sold Banadex, its most profitable operation, to a Colombian buyer in June 2004.

The online magazine Slate points out that Chiquita has pleaded guilty to the very same crime for which John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, is serving a 20-year sentence [“Bananas of Mass Destruction” by Bonnie Goldstein]. (Christian Science Monitor blogger Eoin O’Carroll, March 22)

See our last posts on Colombia and the Chiquita scandal.