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The “Cost of Doing Business in Colombia”

April 7, 2011

March 2000 notes of Chiquita Senior Counsel Robert Thomas indicate awareness that payments were for security services.

As international investors salivate over President Obama’s pledge today to back a long-debated U.S.-Colombia free trade pact, the publication of our latest Electronic Briefing Book should be seen as fair warning to those corporations looking to set up shop in Colombia’s always-uncertain security landscape.

The Chiquita Papers, published on our Web site early this morning, provide an unprecedented view of the financial, legal and ethical gymnastics required for a business to operate in the Colombian hinterland, far away from the relative security of the Colombian capital, Bogotá.

The new collection of some 5,500 pages of documents, culled from Chiquita’s own archives and the result of a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Justice, show conclusively that the company and its Colombian subsidiaries did, in fact, get something in return for their investment – extorted or otherwise – in Colombia’s illegal armed groups, and contrary to the conclusions of a 2007 plea deal with U.S. prosecutors. That sentencing agreement concluded that the company had never received “any actual security services or actual security equipment in exchange for the payments.”

Not so, according to a 1994 legal memo, in which the general manager of Chiquita operations in Turbó admits that guerrillas were “used to supply security personnel at the various farms.” Company lawyers were understandably concerned.  A handwritten annotation on a subsequent draft of the document asks, “Why is this relevant?” and, “Why is this being written?”

In another memo, Chiquita lawyers describe a conversation with a company manager who said that it was absolutely necessary to make payments to right-wing paramilitary groups, not because of intimidation, but rather because they “can’t get the same level of support from the military.”

In fact, the military had been reduced to the role of intermediary between the company and the paramilitary death squads run by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Hundreds of pages of financial records detail payments to Colombian security forces for things as trivial as “sports trophies” to “facilitating payments for security services.” Records show that military members actually encouraged Chiquita to work with paramilitaries through legalized Convivir militia groups.

Chiquita has already admitted to paying millions of dollars to Colombia’s illegal armed groups, but there simply is no way to calculate the value of the thousands of lives lost to paramilitary and guerrilla violence financed by the company over some 15 years of operations in Urabá and Santa Marta.

As one of Chiquita’s lawyers wrote on his notepad as he pored over a list of “sensitive payments” to a variety of legal, pseudo-legal and illegal groups:  “Cost of doing business in Colombia – Maybe the question is not why are we doing this but rather, we are in Colombia and do we want to ship bananas from Colombia? Need to keep this very confidential – People can get killed.”

You can read about the rest of the Chiquita Papers on the Archive’s Web site.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Emily Willard permalink
    April 7, 2011 4:08 pm

    Mike, this is quite an incredible collection of documents! This is an amazing example of the FOIA system actually working. Transparency = knowledge, and hopefully accountability.

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