A new release of the sensitive internal records of Chiquita Brands International, the U.S. banana giant that funded right-wing paramilitary death squads in Colombia, dubbed the “Chiquita Papers,” reveals new information about the exact role individual Chiquita executives played in bankrolling terror in the South American country.
The new records reveal, for the first time, the identities and roles of Chiquita executives like Robert F. Kistinger, head of Chiquita’s Banana Group based in Cincinnati, Ohio, who both approved and oversaw years of payments to groups such as the now-defunct far-right paramilitary organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, better known by its Spanish acronym AUC.
The investigation found that Kistinger viewed the payments as a “normal expenditure” and, like the purchase of things such as fertilizers or agrochemicals, saw them as “an ongoing cost” of the company’s business operations. The investigation also identified the exact members of Chiquita’s board of directors, the corporate security team, regional and country operations manager, accountants and internal auditors, attorneys and third-party agents who carried out the payments over the years.
The AUC was responsible for years of violent terror, leading a coordinated campaign of assassinations and massacres aimed at unionists, political activists, public officials and others perceived as guerrilla supporters. By Chiquita’s own account, between 1997 and 2004, the company issued at least 100 payments to the AUC totaling some US$1.6 million.
The collusion between the right-wing death squad and Chiquita is being increasingly uncovered as families of the victims of paramilitary violence seek justice through the latest lawsuit against the corporation.
One of the documents also reveals that Chiquita, through its Colombian affiliates, not only made payments to the AUC and other paramilitary groups but also to the country's two largest rebel armies, the FARC and the ELN, between 1989 and 1997. The finding, the result of a Special Litigation Committee report investigating whether Chiquita violated the U.S. anti-terrorism statute, underlines the fact that the company financed Colombia's war from all sides for decades in order to protect its bottom line.
According to the report, Chiquita began payments to the FARC and ELN around 1989, but later slowly phased them out as right-wing paramilitary groups gained strength. The payments to guerrilla armies ended around 1997, but the company continued payments to death squad groups until 2004.
The details revealed in the investigation may prove key in providing evidence to prosecute third-party actors responsible for funding Colombia's civil war as part of the country's transitional justice process put in motion by the historic peace deal signed last year by the government and the FARC.
Colombia's Attorney General's office has stated that voluntary financing of paramilitary groups in the context of the internal armed conflict will be treated as a crime against humanity, putting multinational corporations like Chiquita on the hook for prosecution.
“It is clear that the banana business, voluntarily financed an illegal armed group with the specific purpose of ensuring security regardless of the price or method used,” the attorney general's office said in a statement in February.
The revealing new documents have been brought to light by an investigation by the National Security Archive, which filed a Freedom of Information lawsuit to gain access to the records, together with the Colombian media outlet Verdad Abierta, which have partnered to publish a series of articles exposing a number of revelations, the first of which was posted Monday.
The National Security Archive and Verdad Abierta assessed nearly 400 pages of the secret testimony Chiquita executives gave to the Securities and Exchange Commission, a U.S. financial crimes watchdog, in the early 2000s.
While Chiquita, the U.S. Department of Justice and the SEC attempted to conceal the identities of executives and managers who authorized and carried out the “sensitive payments” program, the National Security Archive and Verdad Abierta have revealed some of their identities in their first report of the new records.
The next installation of the reveal will examine the stories of these corporate officials and their collusion with the paramilitaries.
Many of these Chiquita executives are currently being prosecuted, as a U.S. court in December gave the green light for a trial launched by victims’ family members 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 paved 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.
In addition, in February, Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office announced that around 200 local and international companies will face charges for crimes against humanity for financing paramilitary death squads in northern Colombia. 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 people and victimized millions more.
Along with Chiquita, other multinational fruit companies including Del Monte and Dole Food Company voluntarily financed right-wing paramilitaries in order to benefit from protections provided by the so-called “Banana Block,” which served as an umbrella organization for the AUC and maintained control of certain banana-producing stories.
Chiquita Brands, in particular, formerly the United Fruit Company, has a long and sordid history in Colombia and throughout the rest of Latin America.
In one notable incident 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 threat of a communist uprising.