US banana giant Chiquita ordered to pay $38m to victims of Columbian paramilitary group it funded

Banana giant Chiquita has been ordered to pay $38m to the victims of a terror group it funded during the Colombian civil war. Credit: AP

US banana giant Chiquita has been ordered to pay $38.3 million (£30 million) to 16 family members of people killed by a right-wing paramilitary group it funded during the Colombian civil war.

The verdict from a Florida court marks the first time that the company has been found liable in any of multiple similar cases pending across the US.

It also marks a rare judgement blaming a private US company for human rights abuses in another country.

The group funded by Chiquita, United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), had been designated as a terror group by the US government in 2001.

AUC fighters in a ceremony to lay down their arms, back in 2005. Credit: AP

The AUC engaged in human rights abuses across Colombia, including murdering people it suspected to have links with left-wing rebels.

At its height the group had around 20,000 members and was financed through the drug trade, landowners, mining and petroleum firms and other international companies.

A ruling by the jury, which found that Chiquita was responsible for the wrongful deaths of eight men killed by the AUC, comes after a 17-year legal battle and represents the first time that the fruit multinational company has paid compensation to Colombian victims, potentially paving the way for others to lodge similar legal action.

“The situation in Colombia was tragic for so many,” Chiquita, whose banana operations are based in Florida, said in a statement after the verdict. “However, that does not change our belief that there is no legal basis for these claims.”

What is Chiquita's connection with AUC?

According to court documents, Chiquita paid the AUC about $1.7 million (£1.3 million) between 1997 and 2004.

The AUC is blamed for the killings of thousands of people during those years.

Chiquita has insisted that its Colombia subsidiary, Banadex, only made the payments out of fear that AUC would harm its employees and operations, court records show.

In 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty to a US criminal charge of engaging in transactions with the foreign terrorist organisation and agreed to pay a $25 million (£19.5 million) fine.

The company was also required to implement a compliance and ethics program, according to the Justice Department.

“This verdict sends a powerful message to corporations everywhere: profiting from human rights abuses will not go unpunished. These families, victimised by armed groups and corporations, asserted their power and prevailed in the judicial process,” Marco Simons, EarthRights International General Counsel said in a news release.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro questioned why the US justice system could “determine” Chiquita financed paramilitary groups, while judges in Colombia have not ruled against the company.

“The 2016 peace deal … calls for the creation of a tribunal that will disclose judicial truths, why don’t we have one?” Petro posted on X, referencing the year the civil conflict ended.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro. Credit: AP

The verdict followed a six-week trial and two days of deliberations. The EarthRights case was originally filed in July 2007 and was combined with several other lawsuits.

“Our clients risked their lives to come forward to hold Chiquita to account, putting their faith in the United States justice system. I am very grateful to the jury for the time and care they took to evaluate the evidence,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, another lawyer in the case.

“The verdict does not bring back the husbands and sons who were killed, but it sets the record straight and places accountability for funding terrorism where it belongs: at Chiquita’s doorstep.”

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