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Photo of rows of yellow Chiquita brand bananas on a table

Chiquita bananas are exhibited at Fruit Logistica, an international trade fair for fruit and vegetable marketing, in Berlin, Germany on 8 February 2023. Photo by Fabian Sommer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Banana Producer Chiquita Found Liable in Deaths of Colombian Farmers During Conflict

A South Florida jury ruled that international fruit company Chiquita Brands is liable for eight killings carried out in Colombia by a right-wing paramilitary group during the country’s decades-long internal conflict, which began in the 1960s and killed at least 220,000 people.

Chiquita pled guilty in 2007 to making payments to a U.S.-designated terrorist organization in Colombia—the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC))—from 1997 to early 2004, paying the AUC monthly through a subsidiary to dissuade the group from harming banana-producing operations in two key regions of Colombia. They continued paying the group even after the AUC had been designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) by the United States in 2001, making it a crime to engage in financial interactions with the group, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Although the AUC claimed it was created to defend landowners from attacks by left-wing rebel forces, the paramilitary group largely acted as a death squad for drug traffickers, the BBC explained. At its height, the AUC had an estimated 30,000 members.

“Chiquita began paying the AUC following a meeting in 1997 between the then-leader of the AUC, Carlos Castaño, and a senior executive of Banadex,” the DOJ said in 2007. “Castaño implied that failure to make the payments could result in physical harm to Banadex personnel and property. No later than September 2000, Chiquita’s senior executives knew that the corporation was paying the AUC and that the AUC was a violent, paramilitary organization led by Carlos Castaño. Chiquita’s payments to the AUC were reviewed and approved by senior executives of the corporation, including high-ranking officers, directors and employees.

“For several years Chiquita paid the AUC by check through various intermediaries,” the DOJ continued. “Chiquita recorded these payments in its corporate books and records as ‘security payments’ or payments for ‘security’ or ‘security services.’ Chiquita never received any actual security services in exchange for the payments.”

Instead, those payments—roughly $1.7 million in total—were used to fund the AUC’s operations, which included a campaign of violence against rebel groups and civilians. Chiquita’s 2007 guilty plea came with an agreement to pay a $25 million fine.

Now, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the West Palm Beach has issued the first verdict in myriad cases of AUC victims seeking to hold the private corporation accountable. The jury ordered Chiquita to pay $38.3 million to 16 family members of farmers, trade unionists, and other civilians who were killed in separate episodes by the AUC, The New York Times reported.

The victims’ lawyers attacked Chiquita’s claim that it was being extorted by the AUC and that the company had made payments in order to save the lives of its workers. According to a press release from one of the law firms involved, the lawyers “presented testimony by a witness who had worked for Chiquita’s security department, as well as another witness who had worked for Chiquita, and subsequently joined the AUC as a commander, committing multiple murders and kidnappings, both of whom testified to the true nature of the relationship between the AUC and Chiquita, which was one of collaboration and not extortion.”

The jury found that Chiquita knowingly engaged in “hazardous activity” that substantially increased the risk of harm to the plaintiffs’ family members. The jury also found that Chiquita failed to prove it was free of negligence, instead determining that the company knowingly placed itself in harm’s way and failed to leave Colombia in a timely manner when faced with extortion and threats.

Although Chiquita said it plans to appeal the decision, the case could influence other cases currently in the legal system.  A second case against Chiquita for another group of plaintiffs is due to start on 15 July.

What does this mean for security professionals? Investments around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) as well as corporate ethics are going to be in the spotlight more than ever. In a 2021 Security Management article, Eva Nolle, CPP, wrote that, “Security professionals need to monetize proposed solutions and programs, convert them into economic terms, and show a return on investment. But what is the price tag of human rights and how quantifiable are their negative infringements?

“Human rights transgressions can negatively impact all corporate assets, including property, people, and information,” she continued. “Retaliation against abuses can take many forms—contaminated products, facilities attacked or vandalized, staff threatened or harmed, and much more. But companies can also be targeted in the courtroom. Although legal remedies against non-state actors charged with human rights abuses are limited, companies can face criminal charges, and there are some precedents that lend themselves to be used as benchmarks for financial analyses.”