Bargent, James, In These Times
United Fruit's heir has again been linked to paramilitary abuses in Colombia
IN THE LATE 1990S, IN ONE OF many chapters in the Colombian governments decades-old dirty war with leftist guerrillas, more than 15,000 people in the northern region of Curvaradó were forced from their land. First came the army, they recall. And they told us to leave. 'Don't be afraid of us,' the soldiers said. 'Be afraid of those that follow us.'
Those that followed were las mochacabezas- the beheaders - paramilitary death squads fighting as the military's proxies. Thousands fled their massacres, bombardments and executions.
Behind the beheaders came the agribusinesses, which converted the territory into African palm plantations and cattle ranches under paramilitary protection. The cozy relationship between the corporations and paramilitaries became known as the para-economy.
Fifteen years later, the displaced people who have returned to Curvaradó say they are again engaged in a land struggle with a para-economy. But the businesses encroaching on their land are no longer palm and cattle ranchers, but rather plaintain farms run through proxy growers, mostly at the direction of a Colombia-based, multi-national banana company called Banacol. However, the returnees refer to the company by a more familiar name: "We call it Chiquita Brands," says Germán, a leader of the restitution fight.
Elsewhere in Colombia, the name Chiquita has long been long synonymous with the para-economy. The Charlotte, N.C.-based agribusiness is the latest incarnation of United Fruit, the outfit that put the "banana" in "banana republic" with hugely exploitative practices in countries such as Honduras at the turn of the 20th century. But Chiquitas meddling has continued into the 21st. In 2003, revelations emerged that for years Chiquita had been making payments to the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC)- and before that, to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)- in order to operate in Urabá, a region north of Curvaradó. The Justice Department opened an investigation into Chiquitas AUC ties, and in 2007 the company pleaded guilty but, claiming to be a victim of extortion, received only a $25 million fine. Banana workers and former paramilitary combatants tell another story, however- of a cooperative arrangement with Chiquita in which paramilitaries routinely beat, tortured and executed workers identified as troublemakers or guerrilla sympathizers.
As the scandal broke, Chiquita distanced itself from its Colombian operations, selling off its Colombian subsidiary, Banadex, which had provided the company with approximately 11 million crates of bananas every year. The company also partnered with Rainforest Alliance, which certified that all of Chiquitas farms had fair health, labor and environmental practices.
But the residents of Curvaradó have excellent reason to believe that Chiquita kept a foothold in Colombia under a different name. In 2011, Banacol was Chiquitas largest global supplier, accounting for 10 percent of Chiquitas banana purchases, according to Chiquitas annual statement to shareholders. The relationship dates back to the 2004 sale of Banadex, which was bought by Invesmar, the British Virgin Islandsregistered conglomerate that is the holding company of Banacol. The $51.5 million deal included an agreement that Banacol would supply Chiquita with 11 million crates of bananas every year through 2012.
The ties between Chiquita and Banacol do not end there, according to a legal complaint filed in a U.S. court against Chiquita in March 2011 on behalf of victims of the AUC. The complaint claims that the former Banadex management now runs Banacol, that workers continued under Banadex contracts as late as 2009 and that the farms sold to Banacol- which make up over 70 percent of Banacols Colombian land- continue to supply Chiquita. "Banacol has acted as [Chiquitas] alter ego since 2004," the complaint concludes. …