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Chiquita & the Colombia FTA — Murder in the interest of profit

Colombian paramilitaries

Huffington Post | 05/16/11

Chiquita & the Colombia FTA — Murder in the interest of profit

Dan Kovalik
Human and Labor Rights Lawyer

Recent documents obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University from the U.S. Justice Department show that Chiquita Brands International, in direct contradiction of the claims of both Chiquita and the U.S. government for many years, made illegal payments to both guerrilla groups and then AUC death squads over the course of about 14 years in return for security from these groups.

Just as importantly, these documents show that the U.S. Justice Department was aware of this fact when it accepted a plea bargain from Chiquita in which it pleaded guilty to paying these groups a total of over $1.7 million and running them 3000 guns as "protection" from "extortion."

In return for this plea to the lesser crime of paying "protection" from "extortion" (rather than making payments as a quid pro quo for security for its operations), Chiquita was given a slap on the wrist by the Justice Department — a mere $25 million fine, which Chiquita was permitted to pay over 5 years. Chiquita was given this light sentence, with no jail time whatsoever for the offending officials, despite the fact that, according to Colombian Attorney General Mario Iguaran, these payments resulted in the murder of almost 4,000 people and helped to give the AUC death squads a foothold throughout Colombia, and despite the fact that the AUC was designated as a "terrorist organization" by the U.S. State Department.

Again, the recently-released documents, which had been in the possession of the U.S. Justice Department, show that the Justice Department, as well as current U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder who helped negotiate the plea deal as a defense lawyer for Chiquita, were very aware that Chiquita had been involved in a far worse crime (the knowing supplying of guns and money to a terrorist group in return for security) than they pleaded to and than they were punished for. What this shows is that the Justice Department, contrary to its mandate, actually aided and abetted Chiquita in covering up its crimes.

While the National Security Archive states that, "What we still don’t know is why U.S. prosecutors overlooked what appears to be clear evidence that Chiquita benefited from these transactions," it is quite clear why they did so — because it is the policy of the United States to aid corporations in their quest for profit at any cost, even to the cost of the lives of innocent civilians. The Chiquita case proves this as does the Colombia FTA, which the Obama administration is now poised to push through Congress.

The new Chiquita documents show the following:

 The Colombian military, itself a long-time beneficiary of U.S. aid, encouraged Chiquita to finance the AUC death squads through the Convivir group.
 The Convivir group — the conduit for the illegal payments — was strongly supported by then-governor of Antioquia Alvaro Uribe, who would later become President of Colombia and close ally of the U.S., both under Bush as well as Obama.
 Chiquita used various accounting tricks to try to hide its "sensitive payments" to the illegal armed groups — payments it designated in its own records as for "security services." Chiquita’s internal communications with its lawyers show that they decided to claim that the payments were the product of "extortion" so that they could justify these as legal.
 Chiquita was also assisted with its "security" by a Colombian general who, as Chiquita’s records show, was forced out of the military for his connection with, in the words of Chiquita, "death squads" — the very "death squads" Chiquita was itself funding.
 Chiquita provided funds to support Alvaro Uribe’s campaign for governor.
 Other companies were involved in the payment scheme. (We know from paramilitary sources that Dole and Del Monte were other companies involved, but they remain un-indicted).

All of this confirms whatColombia’s Attorney General under President Uribe — Mario Iguaran — had claimed years ago : that Chiquita was not paying protection money as they had claimed, but that they were in fact paying for "blood"; for "the bloody pacification" of the Uraba banana region. And, in response to Iguaran’s request to the U.S. that it turn over the identities of the Chiquita officials involved in the payment scheme to the Colombian government for purposes of extradition for their crimes, the U.S. refused.

In the end, the U.S. let Chiquita off the hook easily and helped it to conceal the full extent of its crimes for two obvious reasons: (1) because the U.S. sees its role as protecting U.S. corporate interests (even from its own laws against supporting terrorist organizations); and (2) because the U.S. is itself culpable of doing exactly what Chiquita did — advancing its perceived security interests in Colombia and the region by funding violent groups.

As to the second point, the U.S. has provided the Colombian military, which has carried out its own share of massacres — including the admitted murder of at least 3,000 civilians killed during the administration of President Alvaro Uribe and his Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos (now President) in what has become known as the "false positive" scandal — with over $7 billion since the year 2000. And the U.S. did so even as the U.S. State Department itself concluded year after year that the military has been collaborating with illegal death squad groups, including the AUC, by providing them with weapons, ammunition, soldiers and logistical support. In short, by protecting Chiquita, the U.S. was covering up its own culpability for heinous violence in Colombia.

And now, the U.S. is set to pass the long-stalled Colombia FTA even as massive violence is being carried out in Colombia against labor leaders (7 of whom have been murdered so far this year), peasant leaders, Afro-Colombians and Indigenous. Indeed, the FTA is designed to benefit companies, just as Chiquita, in their quest to intensify the exploitation of Colombian land and labor — many times through violence. For example, the FTA will support the massive expansion of palm oil companies, about half of which are actually owned and controlled by paramilitary death squads.

And, what’s more, such violence in Colombia is only accelerating in order to prepare for the FTA. And so, according to the The Black Communities Process (PCN) of Colombia, a group advocating on behalf of Afro-Colombians, the Colombian army has been forcing Afro-Colombians from their home — including by burning down their homes and bombing their villages, leading to the deaths of civilians, including children — in order to make way for new ports and tourist infrastructure which will be built once the FTA is passed. In one area alone, the PCN reports, 3500 Afrocolombian families have recently been displaced for such purposes, adding to the more than 1.5 million internally displaced Afrocolombians.

In total, Colombia already has over 5 million internally displaced peoples — the largest in the world, even surpassing that of The Sudan. And, the FTA, by accelerating the further exploitation of Colombia by corporate interests; by allowing cheap, subsidized agricultural products from giant U.S. agricultural interests to be dumped into Colombia duty-free, thereby wiping out the livelihood of tens of thousands of small farmers (just as such trade policies did in Haiti and Mexico), will only add to the violence, displacement and misery plaguing Colombia.

 source: Huffington Post