Hiring Death Squads Is Coming Back to Haunt U.S. Companies
A federal judge recently refused to dismiss a civil suit filed against Chiquita which charges that the company paid leftist (FARC) guerrillas operating near its plantations in Columbia -- during a period when the FARC killed four American missionaries, according to CNN.
The company's position -- which it has held consistently since it voluntarily disclosed the payments to the Department of Justice -- has been that both left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries forced the company in an extortionate manner to make the payments "to protect the lives of its employees."
But that's become an increasingly untenable position -- especially since some of the same paramilitaries who took the payments have come in from the cold, disarming and submitting to Columbia's "Justice and Peace" process -- which allows them to receive reduced jail time for confessing to all of their terrorist crimes. The problem for Chiquita -- and now for Dole (and potentially for Del Monte) -- is that the confessions reveal a much different story.
One of the ex-paramilitaries -- Jose Gregorio Mangones Lugo (aka "Carlos Tijeras") -- was the former commander of the William Rivas Front of the United Defense Forces ("AUC") -- the group that operated in northern Columbia, in the zone where the companies and their suppliers grew bananas. In a sworn statement Tijeras described the AUC's relationship with the multinational banana companies as "an open public relationship" involving everything from "security services" to the kidnapping and extrajudicial assassination of labor leaders fingered by the companies as "security problems."
Tijeras' statement -- which reads like the confessions of a corporate death squad leader and directly refutes his paymasters' version of events -- has now been entered into the record in a case filed against Dole last April in California by attorneys with Conrad and Scherer:
"I've been told that Chiquita has asserted that they paid the AUC funds, but that this was coerced and was a form of extortion. I have also heard that Dole claims to have never paid us any funds. Both of these assertions are absolutely false. In fact, my agreement with Chiquita and Dole was to provide them with total security and other services."
Tijeras is not a lone whistleblower by any means. Salvatore Mancuso, the overall commander of the AUC, also testified in early 2008 that Dole and Del Monte, like Chiquita, had been providing major support to the AUC since its inception. He repeated the accusation to "60 Minutes," which originally aired the segment in September, 2008.
According to these and other witnesses as well as investigators familiar with the bloody history of Columbia, the AUC was originally hired by the companies to drive the leftist FARC guerillas out of the banana-growing region and protect their plantations from "the gangs of common delinquents that robbed their supplies and equipment." (Tijeras) Once the FARC was vanquished and order restored, the banana companies continued to pay the AUC to "pacify" their work force, suppress the labor unions and terrorize peasant squatters seeking their own competing land claims.
Tijeras: "After we restored order and became the local agents of law enforcement, managers for Chiquita and Dole plantations relied upon us to respond to their complaints...We would also get calls from the Chiquita and Dole plantations identifying specific people as "security problems" or just "problems." Everyone knew that this meant we were to execute the identified person. In most cases those executed were union leaders or members or individuals seeking to hold or reclaim land that Dole or Chiquita wanted for banana cultivation, and the Dole or Chiquita administrators would report to the AUC that these individuals were suspected guerillas or criminals."
According to Tijeras, for years the companies provided up to 90% of the AUC's income.
When a case was filed by the families and heirs of dozens of victims against Dole this past April (2009), the company immediately rejected the charges as "baseless allegations" that "are the product of the most untrustworthy sources imaginable" and "nothing more than the false confessions of convicted terrorists from Columbia, who had every motive to lie about their activities in order to minimize their jail time."
(The plaintiffs' complaint is a horrific litany of summary executions, off-the-bus abductions, forced-entry murders and kidnappings, ghoulish disappearances and other crimes committed against trade unionists and land reform activists.)
Of course Dole is correct to refer to the AUC as "terrorists" -- a designation that the U.S. State Department assigned to the group (coincidentally) on September 10, 2001. But if the payments are proven, then, as Chiquita learned, the consequences will be harsh: Payments to designated terrorists are illegal -- whether coerced or not -- and whether or not the company is cognizant or indifferent to the consequences.
As mentioned, Chiquita pleaded guilty in March 2007 after voluntarily disclosing the payments, and ended up agreeing to pay a $25 million criminal fine for violating U.S. antiterrorism laws. The Chiquita criminal case was remarkable for numerous reasons, not least because the company continued to make the payments against the advice of its own outside counsel, and even AFTER notifying the Justice Department.
As part of that settlement, Chiquita acknowledged that it had also made payments to the FARC from 1989 to at least 1997 -- the period when the missionaries were abducted and killed. Now the families are suing Chiquita under the civil provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991, which allows American citizens and their heirs to be compensated for injuries resulting from international terrorism.
Meanwhile, an "independent" review commissioned by the company's board reinforced Chiquita's claim that its sole motivation was to protect the lives of its employees -- from both the FARC and the AUC.
That report may help deflect derivative lawsuits filed by the company's own shareholders, but the conclusion won't pass the laugh test in Columbia, where attorney general Mario Iguaran has roundly rejected Chiquita's explanation and reportedly threatened to extradite as many as eight Chiquita executives (including John Paul Olivo, Charles Dennis Keiser and Dorn Robert Wenninger) who he says were responsible for approving the payments and maintaining a "criminal relationship" with the paramilitaries.
Another remarkable thing about the Chiquita case is the fact that its attorney at the time is now the U.S. Attorney General.
When he was Chiquita's attorney, Eric Holder told the Washington Post that it would be unfair to treat any company "harshly" that voluntarily discloses payments to designated terrorists, and that if the company is penalized, the individuals within the firm should not be. Yet just a few years before he first passed through the revolving door, when he was Deputy Attorney General, Holder himself had authored a famous corporate crime policy memo (known as the "Holder Memo") which suggested that the "prosecution of a corporation is not a substitute for the prosecution of criminally culpable individuals within or without the corporation."
At this point you'd think Holder would automatically and very publicly recuse himself from any decision concerning the requested extradition of Chiquita execs (would the U.S. tolerate it if a government official tied to the cartels blocked an extradition request?) or any other matter related to the investigation of multinational complicity in violence in Columbia.
Maybe it's time for Congress to peel away any doubts. Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA), chair of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, launched an investigation into U.S. multinationals' complicity with human rights violations in Columbia back in 2007 with a hearing in which witnesses testified about a pattern of multinational complicity with Columbian terrorists -- including the Alabama-based Drummond Co., Inc., which allegedly paid members of a Colombian terrorist group to kill three union organizers. (Drummond denies all of the allegations that have been made against the company and its employees by attorneys working for relatives of murdered Drummond employees, even while the Miami Herald reported just days before the hearing that paramilitaries had also come forward to talk in detail about payments Drummond made to the paramilitaries).
Other companies with operations in Columbia that were mentioned at Delahunt's hearing include Occidental, Coca-Cola and ExxonMobil
Attorney General Eric Holder is the nation's top cop, overseeing a department that we are regularly reminded has fighting terrorism (and presumably punishing those Americans who aid and abet it here or abroad) as its top priority - so it's worth asking where the Department's investigation is regarding companies like Dole, which unlike Chiquita won't volunteer any facts, and patently deny any allegations - when there is so much obvious evidence pointing their way.