Chiquita made a killing from Colombia’s civil war. Will their victims finally see justice? A long-running case against the banana giant is moving forward in U.S. court.
Getting an interview with Anabel (not her real name) is not easy. In Colombia, witnessing paramilitary violence against your family generally means you keep quiet about it—it’s too dangerous to speak about what you’ve seen. Anabel tells us, after an extended period of negotiation, to meet her at her place of work near the trendy El Poblado district of downtown Medellín. We are told we cannot name her: What she saw and the powerful people who are implicated mean her own life is still not safe.
Anabel is part of a class action lawsuit brought by the Washington, D.C.-based NGO EarthRights International against the food company Chiquita for alleged human rights abuses in Colombia. According to EarthRights, Anabel’s interview with In These Times is the first media done by any of the suit’s plaintiffs.
Anabel’s trauma began in 1997, when she was around 10 years old, an Afro-Colombian child living with her parents in the town of Apartadó in Antioquia, not far from the border with Panama. Even at a young age she felt the weight of the violence happening all around her. “There were a lot of massacres, too many deaths,” she tells In These Times. “You could see the manner in which they left them as well. Often dismembered. It was a horrible war.”
Her family, she says, had long been receiving threats from local paramilitaries who wanted the land occupied by her stepfather’s banana farm. Land-grabbing by paramilitaries in this region—and much of the country—was and still is rampant. Land judged to be valuable to corporations would be bought or forcibly seized by paramilitaries and sold to rich individuals or corporations. When someone refused to buckle under the weight of threats, the paramilitaries resorted to violence.
Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups initially developed during the Colombian civil war as private militias to defend landed interests. They proliferated in the 1970s, often backed covertly by the political class, which was intent on defeating the left-wing insurrection. And in 1997, these paramilitaries were intimidating enough that Anabel’s stepfather, aware of the dangers, eventually agreed to sell his land.
When Anabel and her family met with the buyer, he said he had to go to another town, and they all got in a waiting taxi. But the taxi soon pulled to an unexpected stop. The buyer exited and another man came in, pulled a gun and started driving. Accompanied by other men on motorbikes, they continued on until reaching the end of a dirt road, where Anabel’s mother and stepfather were ordered to leave the car. The men beat and then shot her stepfather, killing him. Her mother tried to run; she was shot and killed, too. The men took the papers they needed for ownership of the land, then had the taxi driver bring Anabel into town.
Anabel’s life never got easy. “As I didn’t have parents, it was very hard to confront the world,” she tells In These Times. “People made fun of me, I had to see psychologists. I couldn’t go out in the street because I’d see a taxi and run off.”
Anabel reported the murders to the police and they were able to identify the taxi driver, who she believes was involved. But as far as she knows, no case against him or the murderers was ever made, and she has still not been able to recover her stepfather’s land.
“There is a lot of distrust,” Anabel says. “I still have nightmares. I cannot say that the issue doesn’t dominate. You cannot imagine the effort I’m making to not cry now. It’s extremely hard.” She then breaks down and cries. In each of four interviews In These Times conducted with survivors of paramilitary violence in Colombia, the survivors did the same.
On our way out of the offices, another woman stops us and asks we interview her about her family killed by paramilitaries. Like Anabel, she claims the police—and Colombia’s labyrinthine judicial system—have done nothing to help her. No one in the community of un-people in Colombia—the poor, the peasants, the indigenous, the black—has escaped the terrible toll of war.
But there may be hope on the horizon. In November 2016, after nine years of litigation, federal judge Kenneth Marra ruled that EarthRights’ case against Chiquita would continue in U.S. court. Chiquita, which has admitted to funding the ultra right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), had argued the case should be heard in Colombia, where the banana company would be unlikely to be found guilty. But Marra’s decision means that Anabel and the other victims of paramilitary violence will go to trial in the somewhat more favorable U.S. court system.
These legal developments occurred as the Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos and the country’s oldest guerrilla insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), negotiated a historic peace deal to end over half a century of conflict. Following the original deal’s shock rejection in a national referendum, the two sides swiftly redrafted an agreement that in November was unanimously passed in the Colombian congress (with many anti-peace politicians boycotting the vote). Under its terms, thousands of guerrillas will voluntarily demobilize in designated zones before integrating into civil society. Opponents of the deal, chiefly the conservative Democratic Center party of former president Álvaro Uribe, complain that it allows human rights violators to go free. But while Uribe tends to focus on the crimes of the FARC, right-wing paramilitaries leave a violent legacy of their own—a legacy inextricably tied to U.S. multinationals.
Taking Chiquita to Court
Urabá, in the northwest part of Colombia, is the major banana-growing region of the country. Multinational companies have long coveted its land and resources. One of the most prominent of the companies working there is Chiquita—a corporation with a long history in Latin America.
In Colombia, on 6 December 1928, Chiquita—then the United Fruit Company (UFC)—got the police and army to massacre hundreds of banana workers striking for better conditions. Colombians still refer to the so-called “masacre de las bananeras.”
UFC is infamous throughout the region for its intense lobbying effort in Washington, which eventually helped lead to a CIA-instigated military coup d’état in Guatemala in 1954, overthrowing the democratically elected reformist social democratic president Jacobo Arbenz and installing military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas. This helped unleash a civil war that ended with a quarter of a million dead, and what the United Nations has termed “genocide” against the indigenous Maya population.
By the 1990s Chiquita had significant operations in Urabá, the subregion where Anabel was living with her mother and stepfather. They were giving millions of dollars to mass-murdering paramilitaries, who had been emboldened by political protection during the civil war, to help protect their assets from dissidents and their operations from unionists. The major paramilitary group in Colombia, the AUC, has a long history of violence against peasants, trade unionists, Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities.
Chiquita has admitted that it made at least 100 payments to the AUC in the period from 1997 to 2004, a total of $1.7 million.
Court depositions like that of former AUC commander Jesús Ignacio Roldán Pérez (also known as “Monoleche”) in August 2015 as part of the EarthRights case, along with Freedom of Information Act requests made by EarthRights and others, have revealed even more evidence of the involvement of a long list of U.S.-based individuals in the atrocities carried out by Chiquita-funded paramilitaries.
Several of the AUC commanders in the period are now in U.S. prisons, including Salvatore Mancuso, who, according to Monoleche’s deposition, has more extensive knowledge about the funding Chiquita provided to the AUC, which is needed if the case is to be heard in its entirety. Mancuso was sentenced on drugs trafficking charges in June 2015.
Hebert Veloza, alias “H.H.,” was in the mid-1990s the commander of the AUC’s Bloque Bananero, which worked in Urabá and was implicated in many grisly murders. He was extradited to the United States in 2009 on drug trafficking charges. Anabel now believes Veloza to be one of the paramilitary leaders behind her parents’ death.
A diplomatic cable sent from the U.S. embassy in Bogotá back to Washington on May 18, 2007, titled “Mancuso alleges paramilitary ties to politicians, retired generals and businesses,” gives further insight into the role multinationals play in the paramilitary violence in Colombia. According to the cable, “Among the multinational organizations that Mancuso said made regular payments to the paramilitaries were Chiquita, Dole, Del Monte, and Hyundai.”
John Ordman, who currently lives free in the United States, is another with questions to answer. He was, according to a March 2016 court document filed by EarthRights, a high-ranking executive at Chiquita responsible for much of the company’s Colombia operations. He “was involved in the approval of ‘sensitive’ payments to the convivirs”—legal “self-defense” groups created ostensibly to protect private estates from guerrilla incursion. Convivirs deploy civilians under military command, and critics have argued they are essentially legalized paramilitaries, and that they have committed massacres and other human rights abuses. The document goes on: “[Ordman] testified that he had extensive conversations with Chiquita personnel in Colombia about the different violent groups Chiquita was paying.”
In March 2000, internal Chiquita communications noted the connection between the convivirs and the AUC, revealing that Chiquita chose to “continue making the payments [because they] can’t get the same level of support from the military.” At the time these paramilitaries were regularly killing and dismembering people all over Colombia. Often the people they killed were opponents of big resource projects. Chiquita claims it didn`t know what its money was being used for.
In the fanfare around the peace deal signed by the Colombian state and the FARC guerillas, the role of multinational corporations in the violence was largely ignored. The unstated truth in Washington, D.C., is that many people have become incredibly rich by instrumentalizing the violence of the Colombia civil war to fight their own wars against opponents of their projects or company policy.
“Some multinationals have directly collaborated with illegal paramilitary groups, but many others have turned a blind eye to human rights abuses,” says Grace Livingstone, the author of Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy and War and America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America From the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror. “Multinational companies have benefited as paramilitaries have violently evicted thousands of people from their land, clearing the way for large-scale mining, oil or agro-industrial projects. These companies are knowingly operating in a country where death squads suppress dissent by targeting community activists and trade unionists.”
She adds, “There is almost total impunity for the security forces and their paramilitary allies who target land activists and community leaders and those who have protested against large-scale mining, oil and agro-industrial projects.”
In fact, according to Gimena Sánchez, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, “The impunity rate is over 95 percent for [killings of] trade unionists and for the others probably close to that. Colombian authorities, when pressured by [Colombian civil society and international NGOs], may begin investigations but very few of the perpetrators are brought to justice.”
In 2003, under then-President Uribe, the AUC initiated a demobilization process, which saw tens of thousands of men reintegrate into Colombian society, where many regrouped in armed gangs and continued to coordinate terror networks. In 2006 and 2007, Colombia’s Supreme Court unearthed the “parapolitics” scandal, which by 2012 had placed 139 elected politicians under investigation for links to paramilitary organisations, including payments. Former Senator Mario Uribe Escobar—Álvaro Uribe’s cousin—was among those convicted and sent to prison.
Following the supposed AUC demobilisation, former commanders were provided special treatment, receiving little to no punitive action for their crimes. But then they started admitting what they’d done—and with whom. In 2008, Uribe had thirteen senior paramilitary commanders, including Salvatore Mancuso and others named in the Chiquita lawsuit, extradited to the U.S. where they are now in prison on drugs charges. Many suspect Uribe did this for his own protection, as several of the commanders claim to have directly collaborated with the former president.
No one at Chiquita has paid for this with a prison spell, and no relatives of victims have received compensation. But in 2007, EarthRights filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Chiquita on behalf of Colombian families who had lost loved ones killed by paramilitaries in the pay of the company. Portions of the case were brought under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows human rights claims to be brought from victims of U.S. multinational companies within the U.S. court system, even if the crimes were committed in another country.
But this potentially progressive piece of legislation often fails the people it is meant to serve, especially in the case of Colombia. In recent decades, a number of suits brought by Colombian plaintiffs against U.S. corporations such as Dole and Coca-Cola have been dismissed from the U.S. courts due to lack of jurisdiction.
Chiquita filed a motion to dismiss the EarthRights case in 2008, on the grounds that the ATS claims lacked sufficient connection to the United States to be heard in U.S. courts. After a number of back and forths, this motion was granted in 2014. A petition to the Supreme Court filed by EarthRights, asking to reconsider, was also dismissed.
D.C.-based lawyer Terry Collingsworth, who has been lead counsel on many cases involving the ATS, filed some of the earlier motions on behalf of Colombian communities in the Chiquita case. “The Chiquita and Drummond [a coal company also in a court battle over dealings in Colombia] cases both have great facts that should have been perfect vehicles for bringing successful claims under the Alien Tort Statute,” Collingsworth tells In These Times.
But the ATS remains difficult to implement, largely due to the conservative U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (2013) held that the ATS could only apply extraterritorially if there are allegations that “touch and concern the territory of the United States.” This 2013 decision is flexible enough to make it easy for corporations with their significant war chests to argue to dismiss every time.
The argument made by Royal Dutch (and many in the international business community) in that case was that it had no connection to the United States because it involved foreign plaintiffs and a foreign national business as defendant (even though the business has operations in the U.S), and all relevant decisions took place outside the U.S. The five right-wing justices on the Supreme Court jumped at the chance to limit the ATS, and left a fuzzy “touch and concern” test that provided more than enough discretion to lower courts to essentially gut the ATS.
“The ATS needs to be redefined,” Collingsworth says. But “Congress … is very unlikely to champion a law that will be strongly opposed by the major business organizations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Council for International Business.” And with the ascension of Trump to power, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will become more progressive.
Colombia’s domestic system holds little hope either. Several legal professionals tell In These Times that the Colombian judicial setup is so corrupt that justice can’t be served through it. 57 companies, including Chiquita, were recently charged with supporting the AUC—but the lawyers In These Times spoke to suspect the government won’t take any action to prosecute or otherwise hold these companies accountable.
“The corruption is not just normal bribery. Colombian corruption is relationships,” says Collingsworth. For example, Jaime Bernal Cuéllar, a lawyer on retainer for Drummond in Colombia, was a law partner for years with former Colombia Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre Lynett. They have written books together and, Collingsworth tells In These Times, Bernal is the godfather to at least one of Montealegre’s kids. It`s hard to see Montealegre launching a case against Drummond.
Despite the barriers to successful prosecution, the November 2016 decision ensures that non-ATS claims against Chiquita (as well as claims against certain Chiquita executives under the Torture Victim Protection Act) will move forward in the United States. “Chiquita profited from its relationship with the AUC,” says Marco Simons of EarthRights. While Chiquita paid a $25 million fine in 2007 for funding a terror group, he adds, “the victims of their conduct have received nothing. It is past time Chiquita compensates the families in Colombia.”
Chiquita has not yet replied to a request for comment.
The most militant struggles against corporations in Colombia right now are around mining, and its effects on local communities and the environment. In 2014, Dutch NGO PAX published a report on the collusion of mining multinationals Drummond and Glencore with paramilitaries in Colombia’s Cesar region between 1996 and 2006. Paramilitaries killed over 2,000 people in Cesar during those ten years, with the companies alleged to be providing financial and logistical support.
In an office of campesino (peasant) organization The Humanitarian Action Corporation for Coexistence and Peace in Northeast Antioqueño (Cahucopana) in Medellín, we meet Yoladis Cerpa, a 26-year-old from El Bagre, one of the more violent municipalities in Colombia. “My family lives in Bagre but because of my work in social organizations I can’t go there,” she tells In These Times. “Two days ago they killed my brother. In fact, my mother is calling me right now, they’re in the cemetery as we speak.”
As we speak, Cerpa shows us her phone. WhatsApp messages with pictures of her brother’s coffin pop up as relatives send her pictures of the funeral she can’t attend. She tells us of the huge culture of fear that runs through the area because of paramilitary violence. “We are threatened daily by email, by telephone, by any means. The problem now is they killed one of the social leaders on 7 March, and there’s displacement in the villages. They dismembered one of them totally, the others were forced to leave. They threatened them. There are deaths every day.”
Cerpa thinks the organizers are being targeted due to the social work they do. “They are defending the campesinos, defending human rights and making it harder for the multinationals to enter campesino regions.”
El Bagre has large deposits of gold and has been subject to intense resource extraction. This has made the human rights situation worse. “Uribe is one of the owners of a company called Municipio de El Bagre Minero,” says Cerpa. “It’s working in a … very rich region for mining for gold. Uribe is fighting to sell these lands to multinationals. And the campesinos, coordinated by social organisations, are fighting to defend their rights.”
She continues, “Another multinational tried to enter the region but the campesinos, we didn’t allow it. It was amazing. So the threats are mainly due to the organizational work we’re doing as social organizations. Paramilitarism is eradicating these social organizations.”
As an example, she says, “They murdered Comrade William Castillo … on March 7.” Castillo worked for Association of Agroecological and Mining Fraternities of Guamocó (Aheramigua), the same group as Cerpa.
“They shot him. He was meeting with the presidents of some local communities. He was training them about their rights, that they organize committees, for motorbike taxis, for miners, and all that. When … the meeting finished … they killed him.”
Proving that multinationals work alongside paramilitaries to achieve their aims “is impossible,” she says. (Chiquita is unusual for admitting it.) But still she feels confident that this is in fact what is happening. “We are living the conflict,” she says. “And the threats we receive from paramilitaries are always for this, that they’re going to kill us because we’re working with campesinos, because we’re training them [to defend their land], for these kinds of things.”
But while the problem continues, the Chiquita case offers a chance for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of loved ones of those killed in the Urabá region—people like Anabel—to attain justice.
Photo: Workers wash bananas on a plantation in Magdalena, Colombia. Source: J. Stephen Conn/Flickr.