The New York Times reports Nov. 19 that “President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team has signaled to Eric H. Holder Jr., a senior official in the Justice Department in the Clinton administration, that he will be chosen as attorney general… Mr. Holder would be the first African-American to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement official.” Unfortunately, he would also be the first AG to have defended a multinational corporation in a lawsuit over collaboration with paramilitary death-squads—specifically Chiquita Brands in a case over its payments to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a State Department-recognized “terrorist organization.”
On Nov. 6—days before news of the unconfirmed appointment—Dan Kovalik writing for the Huffington Post noted recent recommendations from Human Rights Watch for the incoming administration’s Justice Department to help dismantle Colombia’s paramilitary networks. He finds:
Do not expect these recommendations to be carried forward if Eric Holder decides to forgo his lucrative corporate law practice at Covington & Burling and accept the U.S. Attorney General position for which many believe he is the top contendor. Eric Holder would have a troubling conflict of interest in carrying out this work in light of his current work as defense lawyer for Chiquita Brands international in a case in which Colombian plaintiffs seek damages for the murders carried out by the AUC paramilitaries – a designated terrorist organization. Chiquita has already admitted in a criminal case that it paid the AUC around $1.7 million in a 7-year period and that it further provided the AUC with a cache of machine guns as well.
Indeed, Holder himself, using his influence as former deputy attorney general under the Clinton Administration, helped to negotiate Chiquita’s sweeheart deal with the Justice Department in the criminal case against Chiquita. Under this deal, no Chiquita official received any jail time. Indeed, the identity of the key officials involved in the assistance to the paramilitaries were kept under seal and confidential. In the end, Chiquita was fined a mere $25 million which it has been allowed to pay over a 5-year period. This is incredible given the havoc wreaked by Chiquita’s aid to these Colombian death squards.
According to Mario Iguaran, the Attorney General of Colombia, Chiquita’s payments to the AUC paramilitaries led to the murder of 4000 civilians in the banana region of Colombia and furthered the growth of the paramilitaries throughout Colombia and their violent takeover of numerous Colombian regions. Iguaran, in response to the claims of both Chiquita and Eric Holder himself that Chiquita was somehow forced to pay “protection” to the paramilitaries, …stated unequivocally that “[t]his was not payment of extortion money. It was support for an illegal armed group whose methods included murder.” See, Christian Science Monitor [April 11, 2007], “Chiquita Case Puts Big Firms on Notice.”
One former paramilitary leader who is in federal custody in the U.S., Salvatore Mancuso, has stated that he has more knowledge about Chiquita’s relationship with the paramilitary death squads in Colombia. Mancuso further claims that Dole and Del Monte also made payments to the paramilitaries, just as Chiquita did. Yet, Dole and Del Monte remain un-indicted. Query whether, as Human Rights Watch recommends, a Justice Department under Holder would be interested in pursuing this and other similar leads. This is a serious matter given the fact that the Justice Department has already come under great scrutiny for turning a blind eye to what appears to be rampant corporate support for terrorist groups in Colombia. See, LA Times [July 22, 2007], “US accused of bending rules on Colombian Terror.”
We recently noted that in a presidential debate with John McCain, Obama had spoken against the pending Colombia free trade agreement and invoked the paramilitary killings of Colombian trade unionists. We’ve also noted Obama’s indication that he will reject President Bush’s call to push through the Colombia FTA as a provision of an economic stimulus package. Will he be able to follow through on a change of direction for bleeding Colombia with a Justice Department led by Eric Holder?