The US multinational Chiquita Brands International has admitted funding death squads which unleashed a reign of terror in Colombia.
The company recently pleaded guilty to charges of funding “foreign terrorist organisations” after an indictment by the US Department of Justice. It has been fined £12.7 million.
The plea confirms allegations made by human rights groups that US companies are behind the murder of many trade unionists and left wing activists.
Chiquita admitted to funding the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia – known by its acronym AUC – with £864,000 between 1997 and 2004. Senior executives at the company, including a member of the board of directors, personally approved the payments.
At the time the US embassy in Colombia sent urgent cables warning the US government that “paramilitaries had become a law onto themselves” and “constituted a greater threat to the government than the [left wing] guerrillas”.
The money was channelled through Banadex – Chiquitas’ wholly owned Colombian subsidiary – to Carlos Castaño, a notorious paramilitary and head of the AUC. Chiquita sold Banadex in 2004 as the funding allegations began to surface.
The AUC operated in the region of Uraba from the early 1990s until 2004. The governor of Uraba province at the time was Alvaro Uribe, now Colombia’s president and an ally of George Bush in Latin America.
In the indictment Alvaro Uribe is named as one of the key sponsors of a programme – known as Convivir – a network of right wing vigilantes operating in rural areas.
The paramilitaries were supposedly used to gather intelligence on left wing guerrillas, yet Convivir became the front for many death squads, among them the AUC.
Their victims included trade unionists, human rights activists and their families.
In the indictment of Chiquita, a US court described the AUC as, “a violent right wing organisation,” whose activities, “included the kidnapping and murder of civilians”.
Recently declassified cables prove the extent of its murderous campaigns, and US knowledge of its activities.
According to a cable sent by the US embassy in the captial Bogota on 2 December 1996, the death squads “openly admitted to kidnapping the guerrilla’s relatives”.
The court documents make clear that Chiquita, which claimed it originally paid “protection money”, began funding the paramilitaries in 1997 on the promise that they would clear the areas around their plantations.
The AUC’s first major offensive began soon after the first payment. According to a list published in the indictment, Chiquita funded the death squads with regular instalments ranging from £3,000 to £30,000.
These funds were designated as “security payments” and continued even though the US designated the AUC a “terrorist organisation” on 10 September 2001.
That year Colombian authorities intercepted a shipment of 3,000 assault rifles and four million rounds of ammunition bound for the paramilitaries in the company’s private port.
These lethal cargoes coincided with a huge upsurge in paramilitary violence across the country. The company maintains it had no knowledge of the arms shipment, and blamed “third parties.”
The US company said it had to pay the death squads after threats were made against its staff and it was a victim of an “extortion racket”.
Mario Iguaran, Colombia’s chief prosecutor, dismissed the claim, saying, “The relationship was not one of the extortionist and the extorted, but a criminal relationship.”
Colombia is now seeking the extradition of eight senior Chiquita officials.
As one of the largest banana producers in the world, Chiquita has annual revenues of $2.6 billion. Its Colombian subsidiary was one of the most profitable sections.
Chiquita’s history of dirty dealings in Latin America stretches back to 1871. The company – formerly called the United Fruit Company – is known in Latin America as “el pulpo” (the octopus) for its monopoly over fruit production.
United Fruit backed a right wing coup in Guatemala in 1954 to halt land reforms that threatened its plantations. This coup radicalised a young Che Guevara who was in the country at the time. He dedicated his life to opposing imperialism.
In 1969 Zapata Petroleum Corporation, the oil company founded by George Bush senior, acquired a controlling stake in the company.
It has ruthlessly pursued journalists who investigate its links to paramilitaries in Latin America.
In 1998 the Cincinnati Enquirer published an exposé of the company’s dealings in the region, including allegations that it was involved in the “eviction” of a Honduran village and used banned pesticides.
The paper was forced to pay £7 million in damages and publish a front page apology.
The latest revelations come as Colombia has launched the Justice and Peace amnesty scheme. This programme is designed to offer an amnesty to paramilitaries who come clean on their activities.
Other US companies, including Coca Cola and mining giant Drummond Co, have been accused of paying hit squads to kill union activists. Both companies deny the allegations.
The court documents and declassified embassy cables are available at The National Security Archive. Go to http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/index.html