A jury says Chiquita should pay millions over paramilitary killings in Colombia (2024)

A jury says Chiquita should pay millions over paramilitary killings in Colombia (1)

An aerial view of banana plantations in Apartado, Colombia, taken on June 11. Banana giant Chiquita Brands International says it will appeal a federal jury's decision finding it liable for financing a Colombian paramilitary group known for rampant killings. Danilo Gomez/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Danilo Gomez/AFP via Getty Images

A federal jury in Florida says the fruit giant Chiquita Brands is liable for killings between 1997 and 2004 by a Colombian right-wing paramilitary group that the company gave millions of dollars — even after the U.S. government designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization.

The jury on Monday awarded the families of eight men killed in Colombia a total of some $38.3 million in damages, deciding that Chiquita was liable for killings perpetrated by the AUC — the acronym for the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia).

The company says it plans to appeal the verdict. In the face of the allegations, Chiquita says it paid the AUC under duress to protect its banana-growing operations in areas caught up in Colombia’s civil war. But the plaintiffs say the jury is right to hold Chiquita responsible. And they describe the outcome as historic.

“As far as we have been able to determine, this is the very first time that a major American corporation has ever been held responsible for injuries inflicted upon foreign nationals in an American court of law,” Jack Scarola, a lead plaintiffs’ attorney who delivered opening and closing arguments in the trial, told NPR.

The verdict comes some 17 years after Chiquita pleaded guilty and paid $25 million to settle federal criminal charges brought by the Justice Department over some $1.7 million it paid to AUC — both through intermediaries and, later, in direct cash payments. The federal admission prompted surviving relatives of people killed by the AUC to file civil cases against Chiquita. Since then, more than 5,000 wrongful death claims have been filed, Scarola said.

What does Chiquita say?

In response to this week’s verdict, Chiquita acknowledged the terrible losses civilians suffered in Colombia, but the company also said it believes it will succeed in having the jury’s decision overturned.

“The situation in Colombia was tragic for so many, including those directly affected by the violence there, and our thoughts remain with them and their families,” the company said in a message to NPR. “However, that does not change our belief that there is no legal basis for these claims. While we are disappointed by the decision, we remain confident that our legal position will ultimately prevail.”

But in its verdict, the jury decided that Chiquita "knowingly provided substantial assistance to the AUC" in amounts that would create risks of harm to others. Jurors rejected Chiquita’s claim that it had no choice but to pay the AUC.

In response to the verdict form’s question of whether Chiquita “failed to act as a reasonable business person would have acted under similar circ*mstances,” the jury voted yes.

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What do the plaintiffs say?

There are many plaintiffs — and many lawyers representing them.

“It’s a triumph of a process that has been going on for almost 17 years, for all of us who have suffered so much during these years,” one victim said, in a statement relayed by EarthRights International, a nonprofit that takes up cases involving human rights and the environment.

The victim added, “We’re not in this process because we want to be; it was Chiquita, with its actions, that dragged us into it. We have a responsibility to our families, and we must fight for them.”

“Our clients risked their lives to come forward to hold Chiquita to account, putting their faith in the United States justice system,” said another lead attorney, Agnieszka Fryszman, in a statement about the case. “The verdict does not bring back the husbands and sons who were killed,” she added, “but it sets the record straight and places accountability for funding terrorism where it belongs: at Chiquita’s doorstep.”

A jury says Chiquita should pay millions over paramilitary killings in Colombia (4)

A file photo from 2007 show lawyer Jonathan Reiter discussing a lawsuit against Chiquita Brands International, speaking next to newspaper clippings and photos displaying stories of alleged torture and killing by Colombian paramilitaries who were paid by the banana giant. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

What happens next?

The case decided on Monday is the first of two “bellwether trials” set for this year, after thousands of claims were consolidated to be heard in federal court in Florida. The next proceeding is scheduled to begin on July 15.

The two bellwether trials were to be composed of 10 claims chosen from the many leveled against Chiquita. The first trial was narrowed down to nine claims before it went to the jury — and the banana multinational was deemed liable in eight of the deaths.

After years of legal wrangling and coping with logistical hurdles, the next trial could move more quickly than the first, Scarola said, “because many of the legal rulings that were made in the first proceeding will be applicable and binding in the second proceeding.” Things could move even faster, he said, if the jury’s factual findings also apply.

What did Chiquita do?

The Justice Department said in 2007 that Carlos Castaño Gil, who headed the AUC from 1997 until his death in 2004, met with the general manager of the Chiquita subsidiary Banadex and told him that payments would need to be made once the AUC forced another violent group, the left-wing FARC, out of territory where Banadax was growing bananas.

The 2007 settlement included a "factual proffer" summarizing the U.S. government’s case. Chiquita’s then-chairman and CEO, Fernando Aguirre, signed the document, stipulating that its information was true and accurate and noting that, if the matter had gone to trial, the U.S. would have proved its case “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In that summary, the DOJ said Chiquita’s senior executives at its headquarters in Cincinnati knew about the company's relationship with the AUC. It also said Chiquita's Colombian subsidiary was never provided with any actual security services or security equipment in exchange for the payments it made.

The U.S. government designated the AUC as a foreign terrorist organization on Sept. 10, 2001. But from that date through Feb. 4 of 2004, the government said, Chiquita made 50 more payments to the AUC, totaling more than $825,000. The company started paying the violent group in 1997, according to the DOJ.

As for how much money Chiquita made from its banana operation at the time, the document states that from Sept. 10, 2001, to January 2004, Chiquita earned as much as $49.4 million in profits from its Colombian banana-producing operations. And in 2003, Chiquita's Banadex subsidiary was Chiquita's most profitable banana-producing operation. The company sold Banadex in June of 2004 but continued to buy bananas from the new owner.

Chiquita has a long, troubling history in Latin America

U.S. companies like United Fruit, which was later named Chiquita, used a combination of PR expertise, land acquisition, railroad construction and other advantages to build a financial empire based on the banana — which rapidly went from an obscure, exotic item to one of the most commonly eaten fruits in the U.S. (and elsewhere).

Chiquita and its predecessor company have wielded enormous power and influence over the past 100 years, linked to politicians being removed from office in Honduras, Guatemala and other countries. And while the DOJ eventually targeted the company, the federal government had previously acted as an enabler of a burgeoning U.S. fruit empire.

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In 1928, for instance, United Fruit was confronted with a strike by banana workers in Colombia — a labor action that ended in a notorious massacre, as Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, told NPR's Throughline in 2020.

"The U.S. ambassador reported these events to his superiors in Washington," Koeppel said. He then recited the diplomat's message: "I have the honor to report that the Bogota representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded 1,000."

It was just one of many interventions to come, Koeppel told NPR's Fresh Air in 2011, saying banana companies used extensive ties with the U.S. government to gain assistance from entities from the U.S. Marines to the CIA.

Describing how those dynamics played out in Central America, for instance, Koeppel stated, “Any leader who was either against the banana companies or even simply wanted a fair wage for his people would be instantly deposed, sometimes murdered, often humiliated, and this happened over 20 times between 1900 and 1955.”

A jury says Chiquita should pay millions over paramilitary killings in Colombia (2024)
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