The US multinational Chiquita is fighting to keep almost 10,000 payment documents from the public eye seven years after it was fined $25 million for its payments Colombian paramilitaries.
Michael Evans of the Washington-based National Security Archive told Colombia Reports that the banana company is still demanding that the US Security and Exchanges Commission (SEC) not release more than 9,600 documents known as the “Chiquita payments documents.”
The National Security Archive filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesting these documents, which Chiquita tried to block with a reverse-FOIA case in April 2013. The company attempted to argue that the potential publicity and the affect on a jury in Florida considering a civil suit against Chiquita were sufficient reasons to keep the documents private.
The SEC and a U.S. federal court disagreed, saying the speculations did not “satisfy the level of certainty required,” according to Bloomberg News. The case is on appeal.
According to Evans, Chiquita “never expected to win the case” and is simply trying to “string it out as long as they can.”
“[Chiquita] has been holding this up now for a long time on pretty spurious legal arguments. At every level they have been soundly rejected, at the SEC, federal courts – just cast aside. They keep getting hearings because they’re a big company.”
While Evans hopes that the documents will be released based on the soundness of his organization’s legal arguments, he believes they will also come out once the Florida civil suit is over.
A group of some 4,000 Colombians civilians filed a civil suit in Miami in 2011 alleging that Chiquita was responsible for supporting the U.S.-designated terrorist organization known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). This paramilitary group was responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians, some of which the plaintiffs claimed were their family members.
It was thrown out this summer on grounds the court was unable to rule on crimes allegedly committed in another country.
The lawyer of the victims’ families in a press release said he would try to have to ruling reversed and would move forward with the remaining claims. This ongoing case is the only thing blocking the release of the payments documents now, Evan says.
Chiquita and the 9/11 victims’ bill
Chiquita recently came under fire for its opposition to a 9/11 victims’ bill that would make it easier to sue those who fund terrorist groups. The Daily Beast reported in June that the multinational was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby against the proposed law.
While Chiquita had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in 2001, its payments to the Colombian terrorist group AUC would make it vulnerable to prosecution under the proposed law known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.
An 8-minute segment recently shown on Fusion TV also highlighted Chiquita’s opposition to the bill.
Extortion or services?
During the case against the multinational over its payments to the AUC, current U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was one of the company’s lawyers. He and the legal team were able to negotiate a deal in which Chiquita admitted to funding a terrorist organization and paid a $25 million dollar fine. No individuals were prosecuted.
As Evans wrote on the National Security Archive’s blog, the company got away with a slap on the wrist by “convincing prosecutors that Chiquita was the victim in this case and, importantly, that the company had never received ‘any actual security services or actual security equipment in exchange for the payments.'”
The company argued it was a victim of extortion. But the documents already obtained by the archive tell a different story.
They date back to the early nineties when the company was negotiating with and paying different guerrillas groups in Colombia not simply extortion, but for services.
Evans recently tweeted out some of the damning notes made in the margins of Chiquita’s published documents evidencing the nature of the payments:
One document noted in Evans’ post said that the guerrillas were “used to supply security personnel at the various farms.” Another documents said that paramilitaries formed a front company to the disguise the “real purpose of providing security.”
Perhaps the most concerning accusation came from a former paramilitary commander himself: “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,” the Council on Hemispheric Affairs quoted in a report.
Those allegations, if true, would prove to be far more serious than the extortion payments Chiquita claims it was forced to make to the AUC.
There are also court documents which show that Chiquita allegedly provided the AUC with thousands of AK-47 assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, according to CBS News.
Operating in the Colombian context
One Chiquita lawyer wrote on a notepad that “sensitive payments” to illegal armed groups were the “cost of doing business in Colombia.” A cost Chiquita was willing to pay for several years.
During the height of the Colombian conflict in the 1990s and early 2000s, the mindset of multinationals was that cooperation with guerrillas and paramilitaries was the simply how business was done, according to Evans.
“[Chiquita] had to do what other companies do. You know they aren’t the only ones with these kinds of arrangements. That doesn’t let the company off the hook at all,” he said.
The European Union recently approved the proposed merger betweet Chiquita and Irish tropical produce company Fyffes. Fyffes currently obtains bananas from Colombia, according to the company’s website. Should Chiquita shareholders vote to approve the merger, it would again have operations in the country.
While the business ties and conditions in Colombia are different than a decade ago, questions still remain over the details of Chiquita’s dealings in Colombia, Evans said.
“There is a story about who in Colombia what shepherding that whole process – allowing it to happen, or orchestrating it… The army sort of held their hands and introduced them to the paramilitaries. People were acting as intermediaries the entire time, even when they were paying the guerrillas.
“The question is: who was hiding that this was happening?”
- Interview with Michael Evans
- Chiquita Loses Suit to Stop Release of Colombia Records (Bloomberg News)
- Eleventh Circuit Decision in Chiquita Alien Tort Status Litigation (International Rights Advocates)
- Exclusive: Chiquita Is Blocking a 9/11 Victims’ Bill (The Daily Beast)
- Did your fruit fund terrorists? Why Chiquita battled a bill to help 9/11 victims (Fusion TV)
- “Did your fruit fund terrorists?” New Report Asks Why Chiquita Blocked 9/11 Victims Bill (National Security Archive)
- Hand-written note by Chiquita lawyer (National Security Archive)
- Fyffes Bananas – Where Do They Come From? (Fyffes)
- EU Clears Chiquita-Fyffes Banana Mega-Merger (Wall Street Journal)