“Did your fruit fund terrorists?” New Report Asks Why Chiquita Blocked 9/11 Victims Bill
A new story from the Fusion television network looks into reports that Chiquita Brands International, the famous banana producer, this year poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign to block a bill in the U.S. Congress meant to support the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
So why is Chiquita taking a stand against 9/11 victims? Perhaps because the bill would make it easier for victims of terrorism to sue companies—like Chiquita—who have funded terrorist groups.
It’s easy to forget that the company that spawned Miss Chiquita also admitted to making more than $1.7 million in security payments to a terrorist organization known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The AUC was a drug-trafficking militia group responsible for thousands of murders and forced displacements during years of conflict in Colombia.
A 2007 sentencing agreement between U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) prosecutors and Chiquita memorialized the company’s admission that it had funded a “Specially-Designated Global Terrorist” group. On top of that, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we now have thousands of pages of the company’s own records describing the various payment schemes used by the company to make and hide transactions not just with the AUC, but also with an array of other illegal groups in Colombia, including at least three Communist insurgent groups.
Despite these findings, the DOJ went very easy on Chiquita, leveling a measly $25 million fine and declining to prosecute a single individual for the crimes. Chiquita’s attorneys, including a guy by the name of Eric H. Holder, Jr., had managed to get the company a good deal by convincing prosecutors that Chiquita was the victim in this case and, importantly, that the company had never received “any actual security services or actual security equipment in exchange for the payments.”
But Chiquita’s own records belie the notion that there was not a quid pro quo with illegal groups in Colombia. Years of FOIA requests, appeals and a lawsuit brought by the National Security Archive have wrenched loose thousands of corporate records turned over by Chiquita to the DOJ and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) during their investigations of the paramilitary payments.
One of these Chiquita documents, a draft legal memo from 1994 marked “Privileged Client-Attorney Information,” said that “the Guerrilla Groups are used to supply security personnel at the various farms.” Panicked, handwritten annotations on the margins of the document suggest why we haven’t found more documents of this kind: “Why is this relevant?” “Who needs to get this info?” “Why is this being written?” Throughout the document, every instance of the word “transaction” is crossed out and replaced with the seemingly more neutral term, “payment.”
A Chiquita “Audit Memo” from December 1993 recommended that the company conceal payments to guerrilla groups “to maintain the appearance of a responsible corporate citizen.” By 1995, the company had a “one-inch high binder” of “Boys in the Hills,” according to annotations on another Chiquita accounting record. (“Boys in the hills” is a relatively common expression for guerrilla insurgent groups.) A handwritten memo from 1996 explained how payments to the FARC, ELN and EPL guerrilla groups worked. “We negotiate with all of them,” according to the memo. The EPL, in particular, “helped us out a lot with [the] labor union issue.”
Another document shows that Chiquita also paid right-wing paramilitary forces for security services–including intelligence on guerrilla operations–after the AUC wrested control of the region from guerrillas in the mid-1990s. The March 2000 memo, written by Chiquita Senior Counsel Robert Thomas and based on a conversation with managers from Chiquita’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Banadex, indicate that Santa Marta-based paramilitaries formed a front company, Inversiones Manglar, to disguise “the real purpose of providing security.”
Set up to look like an agricultural export business, Inversiones Manglar actually produced “info on guerrilla movements,” according to the memo. Banadex officials told Thomas that “all other banana companies are contributing in Santa Marta” and that Chiquita “should continue making the payments” as they “can’t get the same level of support from the military.”
Just as damning are the statements of a former AUC paramilitary commander who said that, “We would also get calls from the Chiquita and Dole plantations identifying specific people as ‘security problems’ or just ‘problems.’ Everyone knew that this meant we were to execute the identified individual person.”
Even now, Chiquita continues to try to hide the truth. In April 2013, Chiquita filed a “reverse” Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to prevent the SEC from releasing some 9,600 additional pages to the Archive on the company’s already-well-documented history of supporting the most violent illegal groups in Colombia.
Chiquita is clearly concerned that the release of these documents—including a pair of memoranda where the company tries to explain to DOJ why it should not be prosecuted—might help plaintiffs representing thousands of victims of AUC violence who have brought lawsuits against the company in U.S. Federal Court. Chiquita probably figures that the legal costs associated with fighting the “reverse” FOIA case pale in comparison what might end up being billions of dollars in damages were it to lose the civil lawsuits.
Chiquita found out the hard way about the financial, legal, ethical and human costs of setting up shop in areas of the world under the de facto control of guerrilla and paramilitary warlords. To do so is inherently risky, both to the company’s bottom line and to the lives of its own employees. As one of Chiquita’s lawyers wrote on his notepad as he pored over a list of so-called “sensitive payments”: “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.”
Check out the new report below: