Colombia seeks eight in Chiquita terrorist scandal

The Colombian government says that it will likely seek the extradition of eight unnamed people affiliated with the US banana giant Chiquita Brands International for their alleged involvement in the company's payments to and arms trafficking with a violent right-wing paramilitary group.

The Chicago Tribune reported on Thursday that Colombia's chief federal prosecutor, Mario Iguaran, has formally requested from the US Justice Department documents relating to Chiquita's payment of $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (known as the AUC, by its Spanish initials) a group that the United States labels a terrorist organization.

Chiquita pleaded guilty Monday in US federal court to making payments to the AUC, and agreed to pay a $25 million fine, payable over five years. As part of the plea agreement, the US government will not publicly identify the senior Chiquita executives who approved the illegal payments.

Speaking in Bogotá, Mr. Iguaran denied Chiquita's claims that the payments were made under duress.

"The relationship was not one of the extortionist and the extorted but a criminal relationship," Iguaran told a handful of foreign correspondents in an interview.

"It's a much bigger, more macabre plan," he added. "Who wouldn't know what an illegal armed group like the AUC does . . . by exterminating and annihilating its enemies," Iguaran said. "When you pay a group like this you are conscious of what they are doing."

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that Mr. Iguaran said in an interview with a Colombian radio station that he will demand that the United States hand over the eight suspects, whose identities have not been disclosed by the US government. "They must be judged in Colombia," Iguaran said.

According to the US Department of Justice, Chiquita began making payments to the AUC in 1997 through its Colombian shipping operation, Banadex. The payments began when the AUC's then-leader, Carlos Castaño, met with a senior Banadex executive and implied that failure to make payments would result in physical harm to the company's workers and property.

The United States designated the AUC a foreign terrorist organization on September 10, 2001. Despite warnings from lawyers who advised the company to leave Colombia, Chiquita continued to pay the group. In April 2003, the company's board of directors learned of the payments, who later that month confessed to the Department of Justice, who told Chiquita to stop paying. Nevertheless, the payments continued through February 2004.

Additionally, according to a report by the Organization of American States, in 2001 Banadex helped divert 3,000 Nicaraguan AK-47 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to the AUC.

Chiquita sold Banadex, its most profitable operation, to a Colombian buyer in June 2004.

The news comes in the midst of a major political scandal in Colombia that has linked many members of the country's political leadership to right-wing death squads.

Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Center for International Policy, a human rights advocacy group, sees Colombia's extradition request as a political move to burnish Bogotá's image domestically. He writes:

The call for Chiquita executives' extradition also taps into a commonly felt frustration among Colombians. Many see their government handing over Colombian citizens to face long jail sentences in the United States, but believe that U.S. citizens accused of trafficking drugs or supporting armed groups in Colombia - including rogue U.S. military personnel who have dealt in drugs or weapons - get slaps on the wrist, such as fines or a few months in prison.

Either way, if the Colombian government wishes to begin punishing foreign executives whose corporations have paid "protection money" to illegal armed groups, it is within its rights to do so - but it may find itself extraditing a lot of people. Such payments are widely believed to have been commonplace for decades.

Journalist Amy Goodman, however, says that Colombian authorities have every right to single out Chiquita, formerly known as United Fruit. In her syndicated column she cites the company's history of right-wing violence in Latin America, which includes helping to orchestrate the 1954 overthrow of Guatemala's democratically elected president and the 1928 massacre of trade unionists in northwestern Colombia.

A $25-million fine to a multibillion-dollar corporation like Chiquita is a mere slap on the wrist, the cost of doing business. Presidents like George W. Bush and Uribe, businessmen first, while squabbling over extraditions, would never lose track of their overarching shared goal of a stridently pro-corporate, military-supported so-called free-trade regime. ...

That next organic, fair-trade banana you buy just might save a life.

The online magazine Slate points out that Chiquita pleaded guilty to the very same crime for which John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, is serving a 20-year sentence.

Shares of Chiquita Brands International Inc. rose six cents overnight to open Thursday at $13.92 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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