Chiquita Brands International is facing a mass lawsuit filed on behalf of the family members of over 4,000 victims of paramilitaries, alleging that the banana corporation is liable due to payments it made to the FARC and the AUC.
Over 100 lawyers representing the victims’ families officially filed the mass lawsuit in Florida, where U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra will rule on whether the cases make it to trial.
The mass lawsuit had already been announced by attorney Paul Wolf in March, who is representing over 2,000 of the cases.
“A company that pays a terrorist organization that kills thousands of people should get the capital punishment of civil liability and be put out of business by punitive damages,” attorney Terry Collingsworth told AP earlier this week.
Chiquita has long denied responsibility for the murders, claiming that the company was itself a victim of extortion by both the FARC and then the right-wing paramilitaries.
The evidence suggests that there could even have been an overlap in which both the left-wing and right-wing illegal groups were being paid by Chiquita simultaneously, Paul Wolf told Colombia Reports, depending on which group controlled a particular area.
The lawsuits allege, however, that the payments were not mere indications of extortion but rather that Chiquita was not only aware that the funds were being used to commit terrorist acts but that they had sought out their protection regardless of the consequences for civilians.
In 2007, Chiquita paid a $25 million fine under U.S. anti-terrorism laws after admitting to having made payments between 1997 and 2004 to the now-defunct AUC, classified as terrorists by the U.S. government.
Of potential significance to the lawsuits is the fact that despite Chiquita’s consistent media defense of being extorted, their legal defense in the earlier case was a guilty plea with no mention of “duress,” Wolf explained.
This could hinder their later legal arguments, expecially considering the claimants’ lawyers argue that, at the most fundamental level, Chiquita was criminally “negligent.”
“You can’t just pay millions of dollars to terrorist groups and say that you didn’t know what they were going to do and that it’s not your problem,” said Wolf.
Moreover, to be under “duress,” in legal terms, Chiquita would have to prove that they were under duress throughout the period of over 20 years that the company paid either the FARC or the paramilitaries for protection.
According to Wolf, this “does not match” with the evidence from several key paramilitary commanders such as Ever Velosa, alias “H.H.,” who have publicly said that it was not extortion and that it was Chiquita who initiated contact.
The AUC’s former Bloque Bananero commander, Raul Hasbun, who was himself a banana-producing businessman, has been accused by HH and another top AUC commander, Salvatore Mancuso, of being the intermediary between between Chiquita and AUC leader Carlos Castaño to meet and sort out payments
The some 4,000 lawsuits are currently awaiting a decision by Judge Marra over whether the cases will go trial, a process delayed by the fact that there continue to be new cases added to the mass lawsuit.
There is hope that the decision will be made soon but if Marra does decide to proceed with the cases then it would likely signal the beginning of an arduous process of dividing the cases into various categories, given that the diversity of circumstances behind each individual victim’s plea demarcates the mass lawsuit from other class action suits in which each victim’s situation is identical.