Did Chiquita Go Bananas and Hire Death Squads in Colombia?

Chiquita, the banana giant, is suing the Securities and Exchange Commission to prevent the release of thousands of documents that might contain more evidence that the company paid Colombian paramilitary groups to protect their plantations.

Chiquita's habit of mercenary capitalism was proved in 2007, when the company pled guilty and paid a $25 million fine for funding the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary — read, state-sponsored terrorist — group responsible for the death and displacement of thousands.

In 2011, the National Security Archive, a nonprofit investigative group from George Washington University, published "The Chiquita Papers," a trove of declassified legal and financial documents evidencing the $1.7 million in payments Chiquita made to the AUC.

Now, Chiquita has filed a "reverse" Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to prevent the SEC from releasing more sensitive documents requested by the Archive. The multinational claims that such information would affect impartiality in the mass lawsuit they face in Florida, filed on behalf of the families of over 4,000 alleged victims of paramilitary murder and kidnapping in Colombia.

"We strongly reject Chiquita's assertion that we mischaracterized information found in their own corporate records," said Michael Evans, who directs the Archive's Colombia Documentation Project.

From the outset, Chiquita claimed to have been victim of AUC extortion. Yet memos, like this one from 2000, explicitly reference security services contracted by the banana empire's subsidiary, Banadex. Moreover, ex-paramilitary chiefs not only attested to the protection contracts, they even testified that Chiquita representatives approached them to do what the Colombian military could not.

"Chiquita admitted to more than a decade of regular payments to death squads and narcotraffickers," Evans added. "Now, Chiquita wants to cover up the documents that would let us judge for ourselves whether those payments were extortion or security for banana operations, or both."

But according to Chiquita spokeswoman Tiffany Breaux, the National Security Archive is in cahoots with the families of the victims filing suit. 

"While the National Security Archive presents itself as an independent research organization, it is actively assisting the plaintiff's lawyers who are seeking to profit by bringing meritless claims against Chiquita," Breaux wrote in an email to the Charlotte Observer. She claims Chiquita's "reverse" Freedom of Information Act suit aims to ensure that "the truth is not twisted for personal gain" (the irony here should be pretty obvious).

To the contrary, Evans told me in an email, the SEC's file on Chiquita's operations in Colombia is bigger than that. It "is probably the single most important collection of records ever assembled on corporate ties to terrorism."

"This is more than just the story of Chiquita and the legal and accounting gymnastics… These records include critical details about the terrorist financing networks," he claimed, adding that the effort to expose the ties between politicians, military officials, and other Colombian authorities and the paramilitary has occupied Colombian prosecutors and journalists for years.

"The Chiquita Papers represent a critical piece of that story."

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Benjy Hansen-Bundy

Recently graduated from Vanderbilt University, Benjy now lives in Greater Boston, and writes freelance.

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