In a scandal with wide-ranging implications for US-Colombia ties, Chiquita Brands International, the mega-fruit company, agreed earlier this month to pay $25 million in fines to the US government for making payments of more than $1.7 million to a Colombian terrorist paramilitary group.
At the center of the scandal is the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia–AUC), a right-wing paramilitary umbrella organization responsible for countless massacres and forced displacements over the last decade. The AUC’s operations have often enjoyed the tolerance or collaboration of Colombian security forces, who view the paramilitaries as de facto allies in their decades-old struggle against leftist guerrillas.
Colombia’s attorney general has now opened a similar case, and has requested information from the Justice Department. Colombia might also seek the extradition of eight Chiquita officials on charges that the company used one of its own ships to smuggle weapons to the same paramilitary group.
The news about links between bananas and terror comes amid continuing revelations about the depth and breadth of paramilitary influence at all levels of government. “Para-politics” has already taken down the country’s foreign minister, a provincial governor and the head of the secret police, among others.
Now the mounting scandal is closing in on one of President Álvaro Uribe’s closest allies. Just last weekend, the Los Angeles Times revealed a secret intelligence report that has been circulating recently at the CIA charging that the head of Colombia’s Army, Gen. Mario Montoya, planned and executed a 2002 military operation with Medellín-based paramilitaries. Army forces killed at least fourteen people during “Operation Orion,” with dozens more reportedly disappeared during the sweep.
Many wonder whether the crisis will be the undoing of President Uribe himself, who is considered Washington’s top ally in Latin America.
These recent disclosures and a growing collection of declassified documents are beginning to provide a clearer picture not only of how business is done in Colombia but also of the nexus of paramilitary-corporate-state terror that fuels Colombia’s conflict.
The indictment handed down by US Attorneys in the Chiquita case describes in the most lucid terms the deliberate, methodical nature of the company’s relationship with the paramilitaries.
Chiquita’s payments to paras began in 1997, the year the AUC was formed, and continued until February 2004. Importantly, the company gave the group at least $825,000 after it was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 2001. US law bars support to any organization on the State Department’s FTO list.
Chiquita had been making similar payments to the leftist FARC and ELN guerrillas since returning to Urabá in 1989. Seven years earlier, the company had sold off its holdings in the war-torn region, but was lured back by the promise of expanding international fruit markets.