By MATT APUZZO
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 15, 2007; 8:57 AM
WASHINGTON -- Banana company Chiquita Brands International said Wednesday it has agreed to a $25 million fine after admitting it paid terrorists for protection in a volatile farming region of Colombia.
The settlement resolves a lengthy Justice Department investigation into the company's financial dealings with right-wing paramilitaries and leftist rebels the U.S. government deems terrorist groups.
In court documents filed Wednesday, federal prosecutors said the Cincinnati-based company and several unnamed high-ranking corporate officers paid about $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004 to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC for its Spanish initials.
The AUC has been responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia's civil conflict and for a sizable percentage of the country's cocaine exports. The U.S. government designated the right-wing militia a terrorist organization in September 2001.
Prosecutors said the company made the payments in exchange for protection for its workers. In addition to paying the AUC, prosecutors said, Chiquita made payments to the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as control of the company's banana-growing area shifted.
Leftist rebels and far-right paramilitaries have fought viciously over Colombia's banana-growing region, though the victims are most often noncombatants. Most companies in the area have extensive security operations to protect employees.
In Colombia, authorities reported Wednesday that nine geologists searching for gold were captured by the FARC. In addition, the army confirmed that four contractors hired by Colombian oil giant Ecopetrol were missing near Colombia's border with Venezuela.
Colombia has one of the highest kidnappings rates in the world. Arrangements between companies and either guerrillas or paramilitaries are not uncommon, but it is impossible to know how much money is paid each year.
"The information filed today is part of a plea agreement, which we view as a reasoned solution to the dilemma the company faced several years ago," Chiquita's chief executive, Fernando Aguirre, said in a statement. "The payments made by the company were always motivated by our good faith concern for the safety of our employees."
Chiquita sold its Colombian banana operations in June 2004.
Details of the settlement were not included in court documents, but Aguirre said Chiquita would pay $25 million in fines, which it set aside this year. The company reported the deal to the Securities and Exchange Commission. A plea hearing was scheduled for Monday.
The payments were approved by senior executives at Chiquita, prosecutors wrote in court documents. Prosecutors said Chiquita began paying the right-wing AUC after a meeting in 1997 and disguised the payments in company books.
"No later than in or about September 2000, defendant Chiquita's senior executives knew that the corporation was paying AUC and that the AUC was a violent paramilitary organization," prosecutors wrote in Wednesday's court filing.
Company attorneys made it clear the payments were improper, prosecutors said.
"Bottom line: CANNOT MAKE THE PAYMENT," the company's outside counsel advised in February 2003, according to an excerpt of a memo included in court documents.
In April 2003, company officials and lawyers approached the Justice Department and told prosecutors they had been making the payments. According to court documents, the payments continued for months.
The document filed by federal prosecutors is known as an information. Unlike an indictment, it is normally worked out through discussions with prosecutors and is followed by a guilty plea.
Associated Press writer Toby Muse in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.
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