In March 2007, the American company Chiquita (formerly the United Fruit Company) plead guilty to having made payments from 1997 to 2004 to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary group recognized as a terrorist organization globaly.
The AUC was known as a “right-wing death squad” and were involved in illegal activities including drug trafficking, displacement, kidnapping, and extortion. At one point, the AUC had an estimated 30,000 members across the country. This paramilitary group terrorized rural Colombia and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.
The lawsuit states that Chiquita made $1.7 million in illegal transactions which were used by the AUC to purchase weapons and ammunition, in turn enabling them to continue their involvement in the murder, sexual violence, forced displacement, enforced disappearance, torture, and persecution of civilians. This included the targeted killings of politicians, unionists, and banana workers. An example of this violence financially enabled by Chiquita is El Masacre de El Salado, or The El Salado Massacre, which occurred between February 16 and 21st, 2000 and saw the murder of an entire rural village.
The International Criminal Court, also known as the ICC, was called to investigate multiple officials at Chiquita for facilitating crimes against humanity in Colombia by the armed groups the company paid off. The petition was brought forth by the International Human Rights Clinic of Harvard Law School, the Colectivo de Abogados Josè Alvear Restrepo, and the International Federation for Human Rights.
In March 2007, Chiquita pled guilty to having made payments to the AUC and was sentenced to pay a $25 million fine. The company claimed that those payments had been done due to extortion by the AUC. However, a series of official documents, referred to as the “Chiquita Papers” show evidence that the company was, in fact, paying for “security services” for their Colombian plantations. These security services included the illegal repression of labour unions via acts of violence.
The Chiquita Papers also show how the company benefited from their relationship with the AUC, the multiple attempts they made to conceal evidence, and their role in allowing paramilitaries to smuggle drugs and weapons through the use of the company’s shipping ports in the Colombian banana region.
In 2013, Chiquita brought forth a lawsuit against the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission federal agency as an attempt to block them from releasing the Chiquita Papers to the National Security Archive (NSA), a non-governmental research group that aims to make such information publicly available. The claim was rejected and cleared the way for the release of more than 9,000 of the company’s most sensitive records. You can access that archive here.
After Chiquita had pled guilty-but-innocent and the Papers were released, 4,000 Colombian victims of the paramilitary violence funded by the company were represented by the human rights legal group Earthrights International and filed a class-action lawsuit. In this lawsuit, the victims stated that in order to maintain control of their profitable plantations, Chiquita had commissioned those groups to commit a range of human rights violations. With the now public Chiquita Papers as evidence, they claimed that the company was not extorted by the AUC as they originally claimed, but rather knowingly paid off the violent paramilitaries in return for the “security” of their plantations.
The daughter of a union leader, whose father was tortured and killed by paramilitaries, stated that, “among the plaintiffs… are the families of many community organizers, trade union leaders, social activists, and banana workers who were assassinated in the paramilitaries’ campaign of terrorizing civilians. We hope that the U.S. courts do their job so that the innocent people who were persecuted in the banana growing region can see justice.”
Despite presenting mass amounts of evidence to affirm the plaintiffs position, the United States Supreme Court refused to take up the case.
In May 2017, multiple human rights organizations once again called on the ICC to investigate 14 current and former Chiquita executives and employees for their role in crimes against humanity.