Colombia May Seek Chiquita Extraditions

Banana company Chiquita Brands International pleaded guilty last week to doing business with a coalition of right-wing death squads in Colombia.
Banana company Chiquita Brands International pleaded guilty last week to doing business with a coalition of right-wing death squads in Colombia. (By Amy Sancetta -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia, March 20 -- Colombia's attorney general said Tuesday that his office would try to seek the extradition of eight executives from Chiquita Brands International, the Ohio banana company that last week admitted to paying $1.7 million to right-wing death squads that have killed thousands in this country's long civil conflict.

In deal with the Justice Department, Chiquita last week agreed to plead guilty to doing business with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a coalition of paramilitary groups whose members have massacred peasants and murdered leftist activists for years. In agreeing to pay a $25 million fine, the company characterized the payments as extortion that helped protect banana workers in the northwest Uraba region near the border with Panama.

In forceful, lengthy comments to RCN Radio, Attorney General Mario Iguaran said his office did not view Chiquita's link with the paramilitaries as "an extortionist, victim-of-extortion relationship." He said his office, which has been investigating Chiquita, would carefully study the plea deal and determine if the U.S. executives, whose names were withheld by the court and the banana company, could be extradited to Colombia.

"For reasons of justice, because the victims were Colombian, because of that we insist on extradition," Iguaran said. Colombia and the United States have an extradition treaty.

Mike Mitchell, a spokesman for the company in Cincinnati, said: "We have seen the news reports about it but we have not been contacted about any extradition requests." He said the payments were "old news" that has been dredged up because of the plea deal with the Justice Department.

In his extensive comments, Iguaran also said his office has made significant progress in an investigation of Drummond Co. of Birmingham, Ala., which is facing trial in the United States after Colombian workers filed a lawsuit in federal court in Alabama accusing the company of paying paramilitaries to murder three union organizers. The company denies the allegations.

Iguaran's comments came during an investigation that has progressed from uncovering ties between paramilitaries and congressmen allied with President Álvaro Uribe to dredging up links that death squads might have had with big companies and wealthy families. Up until now, the scandal has been known as "para-political," but Iguaran suggested it could snowball into the corporate world.

"You're very close to also talking about para-businesses," Iguaran said.

Iguaran said that among the issues the attorney general's office is investigating in the Chiquita case is the November 2001 unloading of Central American assault rifles and ammunition at the Caribbean dock operated by the firm's Colombian subsidiary, Banadex. The smuggling operation was detailed in a 2003 report by the Organization of American States.

The Justice Department did not deal with the smuggling operation in its plea deal. Chiquita admitted making payments to the paramilitaries from 1997 to 2004, which Iguaran said violated Colombian law. On Sept. 10, 2001, the State Department declared the AUC, as the paramilitary coalition is known, an international terrorist group, making it a violation of U.S. law for a U.S. company to conduct business with the organization.

"This was a criminal relationship," Iguaran said. "Money and arms and, in exchange, the bloody pacification of Uraba."

In the 1990s, the leader of the paramilitaries, Carlos Castaño, consolidated the group's hold in Uraba, murdering hundreds of people in a scorched-earth campaign designed to terrorize anyone who might support Marxist rebel groups. Castaño's paramilitaries then used Uraba as a platform to launch attacks, often with the help of military units, across the country.

"This is where Castaño hatched and started implementing his plan to exterminate not only guerrillas, but any civilian who got in their way," said Maria McFarland, Colombia researcher for Human Rights Watch, the New York rights group. "And it's from that starting place that the paramilitaries grew and took over control of much of the country."

Francisco Ramirez, a leading labor lawyer with the biggest group of workers, the Unified Confederation of Workers, said Chiquita and other companies took advantage of a lawless region to support paramilitaries who not only focused on liquidating rebels but also organized labor. "These are the policies of the companies," he said. "This is their security policy, just like they have a corruption policy and a policy to violate labor laws."

U.S. prosecutors said that after a 1997 meeting between Castaño and Banadex's general manager, who is unnamed in court documents, Chiquita made more than 100 payments. Castaño told the executive that Banadex should make the payments to a local Convivir, then a legal vigilante group that was propelled by Uribe, who was finishing his term as governor of the state where Uraba is located. U.S. court documents say the AUC used the Convivirs as fronts to collected money from businesses, which was then used to support their illegal activities.

The Justice Department said that Chiquita's senior executives reviewed and approved the payments, even though they had the knowledge that the AUC was "a violent paramilitary organization," court documents showed. In corporate books, the company called the money security payments, doling out checks at first and then paying in cash. Even after the State Department labeled the AUC a terrorist group, Chiquita made 50 payments totaling $825,000, court documents showed.

Iguaran said the evidence shows that Chiquita, as well as other companies that have paid the AUC, have been "conscious of what they did, that what these groups did, among other things, was to assassinate."

Staff writer Sam Diaz in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company