Chiquita Brands Found Guilty Of Funding Colombian Terrorist Group

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June 10, 2024 marked a groundbreaking moment in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida as a unanimous jury delivered a verdict holding banana giant, Chiquita Brands International, Inc., liable to pay $38.3 million in damages to the families of eight farmers and civilians brutally murdered in Colombia by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), also known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, between 1997 and 2004.

The case represents a monumental win, following 17 years of litigation that originally began in 2007.

The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia was a right-wing paramilitary group that was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (“FTO”) and Specially Designated Global Terrorist (“SDGT”) by the United States Government in 2001.

While this designation made it a crime to engage in financial or other transactions with the AUC under the laws of both Colombia and the United States, Chiquita made systematic and prolonged payments to the group, in the amount of $1.7 million, between 1997 and 2004.

The United States Department of Justice pursued legal action against Chiquita for these transactions, leading to the company’s admission of guilt in 2007 for engaging in dealings with a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. Chiquita was required to pay a fine of $25 million as a result.

Subsequently civil suits were brought against Chiquita in the United States to obtain compensation for the victims of AUC violence in Colombia, predicated upon Chiquita’s material support of a terrorist organization in the form of money as well as other forms of collaboration with the AUC from which the banana company benefited.

The Court held the first of two bellwether trials— a subset of lawsuits taken from a larger pool of similar cases to assess the direction of future cases— involving nine murder victims from among hundreds of claims filed against Chiquita. The jury determined that the AUC was culpable for eight out of the nine murders.

In his main summation on behalf of the plaintiffs, one of the lead trial attorneys, Jack Scarola, emphasized that Chiquita knew that it would be endangering the lives of its employees and innocent civilians when it began acquiring farms in the Colombian regions of Urabá and Magdalena, due to well-known violence by various terrorist groups in the area.

The AUC had committed widespread human rights violations in Colombia, brutally killing those they believed to be connected to left-wing insurgents, which included both trade unionists and banana workers.

Chiquita countered that Carlos Castaño, the then-leader of the AUC, suggested that their Colombian subsidiary and its personnel could be endangered if payments were not made. However, the plaintiffs disputed this claim.

“During the trial, we presented testimony from a former member of Chiquita’s security department and another witness who became an AUC commander, and had committed multiple murders and kidnappings,” declared Jonathan C. Reiter, another lead trial attorney on the case, in response to Chiquita’s claim that it was being extorted by the AUC. “Their testimonies revealed the true nature of the relationship between Chiquita and the AUC— a relationship of collaboration, not extortion. This sinister partnership endangered countless lives.”

The jury dismissed Chiquita’s plea of duress, concluding that the company could not demonstrate its innocence in knowingly exposing itself to danger and failing to promptly depart from Colombia.

Heart-wrenching testimonies from victims’ families brought the horrors of the AUC’s violence to light. One witness recounted how AUC paramilitaries slit her husband’s throat in front of her and their young daughters. Another described how her son had been abducted from a banana farm and executed by an AUC assassin. The brutal tactics of the AUC, designed to instill fear through violent displays, were vividly recounted by the plaintiffs and expert witnesses.

One of the victims expressed the emotional toll of the long legal battle: “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. There’s a debate about justice and reparation; we’ve been fighting since 2007. 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.”

Mr. Reiter underscored Chiquita’s disregard for the repercussions of its illegal payments to the AUC, as long as the company continued to profit from banana sales. He pointed out the irony of Chiquita’s attorneys expressing sympathy in court, suggesting that genuine concern should have been shown during the years of collaboration with the AUC, not in the courtroom years later.

In 2004— amid initial investigations— Chiquita made the strategic choice to cease operations in Colombia. This decision involved selling its banana-producing and port facilities in the country, which constituted approximately 9% of the company’s banana volume, equivalent to 11 million boxes. The sale amounted to $52 million, a reported after-tax loss of some $5 million. At the time, Chiquita had been reported as saying that its reason for selling its Colombian operation was to limit its exposure to weather and foreign currency risk.

Despite facing numerous lawsuits from victims’ families, the recent Florida verdict marks the first instance of Chiquita being held accountable for its actions.

In a statement released after the verdict, Chiquita expressed sympathy for those affected by the violence in Colombia, describing the situation as “tragic for so many, including those directly impacted.” The company added, “Our thoughts remain with them and their families. However, we maintain that there is no legal basis for these claims.”

Despite Chiquita’s intention to appeal, legal experts suggest this groundbreaking decision could impact numerous other cases awaiting trial.

This historic ruling is unprecedented, marking the first time an American jury has held a major U.S. corporation responsible for involvement in egregious human rights abuses overseas, setting a powerful global precedent.

A second bellwether trial is scheduled to begin in July 2024.

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