Human rights defenders and families of victims are one step closer to justice for Colombian labor leaders and other activists murdered at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries paid by U.S. banana giant Chiquita Brands as a U.S. court gave the green light Wednesday for the trial to move forward against the company and its top executives.
A Florida federal judge, Kenneth Marra, threw out Chiquita’s arguments that the case should be dealt with in Colombia instead of the United States, where the company is headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina. After more than a decade of legal battles, the ruling paves the way for a historic shot at justice in an international court for foreign and corporate-funded political violence carried out in the context of Colombia’s more than five decade-long civil war.
“This decision is a great accomplishment for those of us who have searched for justice for many years,” one of the plaintiffs involved in the case said in a statement Wednesday, opting to remain anonymous in light of ongoing security concerns. “This gives us hope that one day justice will be a reality, and all guilty parties will take responsibility for their actions.”
Plaintiffs supported by EarthRights International launched a class action lawsuit in 2007 to seek charges against Chiquita for supporting the notorious and now-defunct far-right paramilitary organization the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia, also known by its Spanish acronym AUC. By Chiquita’s own account, between 1997 and 2004, the company issued at least 100 payments to the AUC totalling some US$1.6 million.
The lawsuit also accused Chiquita of being complicit in the AUC’s trafficking of drugs and weapons through the use of the company’s ports and boats.
Back in 2007, Chiquita pled guilty to charges of funding the designated terrorist group, which is a federal crime, and paid a fine. But the company has never been held accountable for the violence and deaths that terrorized social movements and communities that voiced concern about its labor practices or otherwise challenged the company.
“Chiquita profited from its relationship with the AUC, and paid the Department of Justice US$25 million, but the victims of their conduct have received nothing,” said EarthRights International general counsel Marco Simons in a statement Wednesday. “It is past time Chiquita compensates the families in Colombia.”
Earlier this year, a U.S. court opened the door for a federal lawsuit against the company’s former executives, arguing that their decision to fund the AUC showed that “profits took priority over basic human welfare.”
Chiquita has argued that the case should be heard in Colombia, even though the company no longer has holdings in the country. The court upheld the view argued by the prosecution that it would be inappropriate for litigation to proceed in Colombia, where ongoing paramilitary violence poses a serious threat to human rights defenders and social activists.
The ruling comes as Colombian social movements have warned of a resurgence of paramilitary violence in rural areas, some of the hardest hit by the armed conflict, as well as a spike in threats, attacks and assassinations of campesino activists and other community leaders. The AUC, the paramilitary group Chiquita hired, demobilized as part of a peace process with the government of far-right former President Alvaro Uribe in the mid-2000s. But the group’s violent legacy continues to live on in a number of narco-paramilitary successor groups.
Widespread violence with almost total impunity makes Colombia one of the most dangerous in the world for human rights defenders. According to official statistics, 335 Colombian rights defenders were murdered between 2009 and 2015. According to the organization Global Witness, 26 land and environmental defenders were assassinated in 2015 alone, making it the third most deadly country in the world for such activists.
Paramilitary groups are said to be responsible for at least 80 percent of civilian deaths in the country’s more than half century-long civil war that has claimed the lives of some 260,000 victims and displaced millions more.
And Chiquita is far from the only corporate sponsor of death squad terror in Colombia, which has proved to be a hotbed for corporate abuses. Between 1990 and 2002, Coca-Cola allegedly hired hitmen from the AUC to murder at least 10 labor union leaders linked to organizing the company’s plants. Similarly, a Colombian union leader who survived kidnapping and torture at the hands of paramilitaries in 2002 claims U.K. oil giant BP ordered his capture and murder.
The Chiquita lawsuit could set an important precedent for prosecuting other multinational corporations involved in funding political violence.
Chiquita Brands, formerly the United Fruit Company, has a long and infamous history in Colombia and other Latin American countries. In 1928, banana workers at a United Fruit Company plantation near Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast suffered a brutal massacre at the hands of the military after the company and other U.S. officials in Colombia painted a labor strike as a threatening communist uprising.
Renowned Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez depicted a fictional version of the Banana Massacre, as it is known, in his famed novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude."