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The Role of Businesses in Colombia’s Conflict Cannot Be Ignored

As the country addresses decades of violence, corporate officials in companies like Chiquita must be held accountable as well.
bananas
Public Domain/Pixabay

When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met with President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., discussion of the Colombian implementation of the peace deal took a backseat to other issues, including the importance of continued economic cooperation.

“We are and wish to continue to be the best destination in Latin America for American businesses,” Santos commented in a joint press conference.

In Colombia, however, conflict and business prospects have been historically entwined, and for peace and economic cooperation to progress, the legacy of U.S. businesses in fueling the country’s decades-long conflict must be addressed. Chiquita Brands International is a case in point. The company admitted to paying $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004 to the right-wing Colombian paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), which was notorious for brutal attacks against civilians at the time. Today, as Colombia works to secure a lasting peace, it is important to hold responsible not only those who shot the bullets, but also those who helped pay for them.

While Chiquita as a corporate entity pled guilty to financing the AUC in 2007, ten years later, not a single corporate official has been charged or prosecuted, in either the United States or in Colombia. Both the plea agreement and internal company documents obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University reveal that high-level corporate officials designed and implemented complex accounting schemes for Chiquita, intended to obscure over 100 payments to the paramilitary organization. Year after year, payment after payment, the evidence shows corporate officials made decisions to protect their interests and continue illegally financing the AUC, yet not a single one of them has been held responsible.

The peace process has refocused attention on accountability in an attempt to clarify the truth of what has happened and prevent such violence from recurring. And the role of Chiquita executives in the past has not gone unnoticed. Within Colombia, attorneys have been pushing for accountability through either Colombia’s ordinary criminal system or the newly created transitional justice mechanism known as the “Special Jurisdiction for Peace.” The same day as Santos’ statement, a coalition of human rights organizations also called upon the International Criminal Court (ICC) to examine the role of Chiquita’s executives in contributing to crimes against humanity.

Though the executives claim that they made the payments under duress, the evidence paints a different story. According to Chiquita’s own internal investigation, an official from the U.S. Department of Justice, Michael Chertoff, stated the payments were “a crime” and “that he did not see Chiquita’s case as one of true duress, because the Company had a legal option — to withdraw from Colombia.” Outside counsel told Chiquita in 2003, “You voluntarily put yourself in this position. Duress defense can wear out through repetition.” With over 100 payments over the course of seven years, the question is why did Chiquita stay?

At the sentencing hearing in 2007, the U.S. prosecutor remarked “it was good for the company” and what he meant was that staying was profitable. In fact, we know that by 2003, Chiquita’s Colombian subsidiary, Banadex, was the company’s most profitable banana-producing operation. Beyond Chiquita, the banana industry as a whole was benefitting from the AUC crimes. Widespread displacement and land-grabbing resulted in a substantial increase in the land dedicated to banana farming, and as the AUC targeted union leaders, union membership and strikes declined as well.

That choice to put profit over peace has left a lasting mark. The legacy of the Chiquita’s executives is not only a part of history, but lives on today in the communities in the banana-growing regions, where memories endure of the violence Chiquita’s payments fueled. Just as troubling, while Chiquita withdrew from Colombia in 2004, communities continue to be targeted and experience violence.

The peace process aims to finally put an end to that violence and bring some closure to the past. But this cannot happen without addressing the important contributions of those who helped fuel the systematic violence, including businesses and their executives. Colombia and the United States have the chance to do their part. If they do not, the ICC should stand ready so that corporate executives do not continue to enjoy the impunity they have for far too long.

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Tyler Giannini, MacKennan Graziano, and Kelsey Jost-Creegan are part of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. Last week, the Clinic and its partners called upon the International Criminal Court (ICC) to examine the role of Chiquita’s corporate officials in contributing to crimes against humanity in Colombia.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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