Rows of stout trees hang heavy with bright green bananas on
plantations near Colombia's border with Panama. Workers slice off
each bunch and package the fruit in boxes with a label recognized
worldwide for its fresh bananas: Chiquita.
In Colombia, however, the Chiquita name has recently come to
symbolize the confirmation of a long-suspected relationship between
multinational firms and illegal armies fighting in the nation's four-
Chiquita Brands International admitted in US court last month
that it paid $1.7 million to Colombia's brutal right-wing militias
over the course of eight years. The company said it did so to
protect its employees and agreed to pay a $25 million fine. The case
is sparking outrage in the capital, Bogota, where officials want to
see company executives on trial.
Many in Uraba, Colombia's banana growing region, shrug off the
payments as normal. Chiquita pulled out of Colombia in 2004 by
selling its Banadex subsidiary to a local company for $43.5 million.
But the case could have implications for other companies doing
business here or in other conflict areas around the world, analysts
"It's one of the first - if not the first - times that a [US-
based] company is indicted and pleads guilty to providing material
support to an organization known to commit widespread human rights
abuses," says Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human
Rights program at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"But it's actually not a case about human rights," he says. "It's
a unique case where terrorism is the crux of the whole thing." The
single-count indictment against Chiquita was for "engaging in
transactions with a specially designated global terrorist."
The right-wing United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC)
joined the ranks of Al Qaeda and Hamas on the State Department's
list of terrorist organizations in September 2001. Colombia's two
main leftist rebel groups, known as FARC and ELN are also on the
Companies across the globe should be looking at the Chiquita case
as a cautionary tale, says Mr. Ganesan. "Even if [the security
providers] are not on a terrorist list, [the Chiquita case] should
provoke a real rethinking of security arrangements," he says. The
AUC was not on the US terrorist list when Chiquita began making its
At least three multinationals operating in Colombia - coal mining
giant Drummond, Nestle, and Coca-Cola - have been targeted in civil
lawsuits in the US that claimed these companies paid paramilitaries
to kill or intimidate union workers. The Chiquita case could pave
the way for investigations into other companies, as well.
"Corporations are on notice that they cannot make protection
payments to terrorists," said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth
Wainstein on announcing the plea agreement. A Justice Department
spokesman declined to say whether probes into those firms are under
Chiquita case could be a precursor
"If Chiquita can be prosecuted, then Drummond can," says Terry
Collingsworth, an attorney with the International Labor Rights Fund
which supports civil lawsuits against Drummond, Nestle, and Coca-
Chiquita is "now a sitting duck" for legal action by families who
believe the company may be liable for their loved ones' deaths, Mr.
Colombia's chief prosecutor Mario Iguaran said Colombia may ask
for the extradition of the eight Chiquita executives who according
to court papers authorized or knew of the payments. "This was not
payment of extortion money. It was support for an illegal armed
group whose methods included murder," Mr. Iguaran said.
In 2001, more than 3,000 Central American rifles and millions of
rounds of ammunition were unloaded at a Colombian port by Banadex
and eventually ended up in the hands of paramilitary forces,
according to an investigation by the Organization of American