Steve Croft: For American corporations, the rewards of doing business abroad are enormous, but so are the risks. And over the past 25 years, no place has been more perilous than Colombia, a country that is just beginning to emerge from throes of Civil War and narco-terrorism.
Chiquita Brands International of Cincinnati, Ohio found out the hard way. It made millions growing bananas there, only to emerge with its reputation splattered in blood after acknowledging that it had paid nearly 2 million dollars in protection money to a murderous paramilitary group that has killed or massacred thousands of people.
As we reported last year, the victim’s families are now suing Chiquita in an American court. And investigators in Bogota and on Capitol Hill are looking at other US companies that may have done the same thing.
From the air, the planes of the Uruba region are carpeted with a lush foliage of banana plantations which have long provided a livelihood for the people of Northern Colombia. And for the better part of a century, its best-known product has been the Chiquita banana.
(Singing.) I’m Chiquita Banana won’t you come with me to the bank of bananas, Nation’s Treasury.
But since the 1980s, the business of bananas has been much less festive and punctuated with gunfire. First the area was taken over by Marxist guerrillas called the Fark, whose ruthlessness and killing and kidnapping was exceeded by the private, paramilitary army that rose up to fight them.
Chiquita found itself trying to grow bananas in the middle of a war in which the Colombian government and its army was of no help.
Fernando Aguirre: These were lands were there was no law. It was impossible for the government to protect employees.
SC: Fernando Aguirre, who became Chiquita Banana’s CEO after all this happened, says the company was forced to pay taxes to the guerillas when they controlled the territory in the late 80s to the late 90s. And when the paramilitaries, known as the AUC, moved in in 1997, they demanded the same thing.
FA: It was a dilemma about having a gun literally pointed to your head. Where you have someone who says, “either you pay me, or I’m gonna kill you or I’m going to kill your employees.”
SC: Did the paramilitary state specifically to you that if you didn’t make the payments your people would be killed.
FA: There was a very strong signal that if the company would not make payments things would happen. And since they had already killed at least 50 people of the employees of the company, it was clear to everyone there that these guys meant business.
SC: Chiquita only had a couple of options and none of them were particularly good. They could refuse to pay the paramilitaries and run the risk that employees could be killed or kidnapped, it could pack up and leave the country altogether and abandon its most profitable enterprise, or it could stay in paid protection, and in the process, help finance the atrocities that were being committed all across the countryside.
FA: These were extortion payments. Either you paid or your people get killed.
SC: And you decided to pay?
FA: And the company decided to pay. Absolutely.
SC: So there was no doubt in your mind that these were very bad people.
FA: Absolutely. Absolutely. No doubt.
SC: Just how bad was already becoming evident. The paramilitaries who were being funded initially by large landowners, and later by the cocaine trade, not only drove the Marxist guerillas from the area, they tried to eliminate anyone who might have left them sympathies from labor leaders to school teachers. Sometimes entire villages were wiped out in the most grizzly fashion.
Gloria Quartes was the mayor of Apartado and witnessed much of it with her own eyes.
GQ: I was a mayor whose job was just to gather the dead.
SC: In 1996, she went to this school to talk to the children about the violence that surrounded them. And while she was there, the paramilitaries arrived and murdered a 12-year-old boy, whose only crime had been to announce their presence.
GQ: They cut off his head and threw the head at us. I was in a state of panic. They were there for 4 hours with their weapons firing shots toward the ceiling. 100 girls and boys were with me. The children did not scream. They were in shock.
SC: Did they say anything to you?
GM: No. Their language was death. Their message was that if they could do this to children, they could do it to me.
SC: As the atrocities piled up all across the country, Chiquita continued to make the payments to the paramilitaries viewing itself as a victim of the violence, not a facilitator. But all of that changed in 2001 when the US government designated the paramilitaries a terrorist organization. Making any kind financial assistance to the group, coerced or otherwise, a felony. Yet Chiquita continued to make the payments for another 2 years claiming it missed the government’s announcement.
SC: It was in the newspapers. It was in the Cincinnati Inquirer, which is where your company headquarters is. It was in the New York Times. This was a big part of your business doing business in Colombia. How did you miss it?
FA: Well again. I can’t… I don’t know what happened during that time frame, frankly. What I know is all the data shows that when the company learned that these payments were illegal in the United States, that’s when they decided to self disclose to the Department of Justice.
SC: By “self-disclose,” he means Chiquita, advised by its attorneys, turned itself in to the Justice Department. And one of the first things Aguirre did when he became CEO was to stop the payments and sell the company’s Colombian subsidiary. The company pled guilty to a felony and agreed to pay a 25 million dollar fine. But that wasn’t the end of its legal problems.
Terry Collinsworth: This company has blood on its hands.
SC: Attorney Terry Collinsworth filed one of five lawsuits that have been brought against Chiquita, seeking money for the families of Colombians killed by the paramilitaries. He says the money Chiquita paid for 7 years may have kept its employees safe, but it also helped buy weapons and ammunition that were killing other people.
SC: Are you saying that Chiquita was complicit in the massacres that took place down there?
TC: Absolutely. If you provide knowing substantial assistance to someone who then goes out and kills someone or terrorizes or tortures someone, you are also guilty.
SC: And you believed that Chiquita knew that this money they were paying was being used to go into the villages and massacre people.
TC: If they didn’t, they would be the only ones in the country of Colombia who didn’t think that.
SC: You’re not saying that Chiquita wanted these people to be killed.
TC: No, they were indifferent to it. Instead of wanting those people dead, they were willing to accept that those people would be dead in order to keep their banana operation running profitably and making all the money that they did in Colombia.
SC: You think they should have just picked up and left?
FA: It’s easy for a lawyer to give that type of advice after the fact when you have more than 3500 workers. Their lives depend on you when you’ve been making payments to save their lives, you just can’t pick up and go.
SC: What did the company think this money was going to be used for?
FA: Well clearly, to save lives.
SC: The lives of your employees.
SC: It was also being used to kill other people.
FA: These groups were funded with hundreds of millions of dollars. They had the guns. They had the bullets. So I thought who in their right mind would say, “Well, if Chiquita would have stopped, these killings would have stopped.” I just don’t see that happening.
SC: Do you feel that the company has any responsibility to compensate the victims of the paramilitaries in Colombia?
FA: The responsibility of any murders are the responsibility of the people that made the killings… of the people who pulled the trigger.
SC: The Justice Department decided not to prosecute any corporate officer in Chiquita which included prominent business men like former CEO Cyrus Freidheim Jr., who later led the Sun Times Media Group, and Board Member Roderick Kills, a former Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The decision created a furor in Colombia. The country’s Prosecutor General said he would begin his own investigation and has threatened to extradite some of Chiquita’s executives to stand trial in Colombia.
There is also a Congressional investigation led by Senator William Dellahunt of Massachusetts who chairs a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
SC: You’ve been quoted as saying that Chiquita is the tip of the iceberg.
SC: What do you mean by that?
WD: Well, I think that there are other American companies that have conducted themselves the same way that Chiquita has except they haven’t been caught.
SC: How many companies?
WD: Well, there are several.
SC: Want to share that with us?
WD: Because I want to give those companies an opportunity to come before the committee.
SC: We did find one person who was willing to name names inside this maximum security prison in Metayin (sp?). Salvatore Mancuso was once the leader of the paramilitaries.
SC: Chiquita says the reason they paid the money was because your people would kill them if they didn’t. Is that true?
Salvatore Mancuso: No, it is not true. They paid taxes because we were like a state in the area and because we were providing them with protection, which enabled them to continue making investments and a financial profit.
SC: What would have happened if the companies have not paid?
SM: The truth is, we never thought about what would happen because they did so willingly.
SC: Did they have a choice?
SM: Yes, they had a choice. They could go to the local police or army for protection from the guerillas. But the army and police at that time were barely able to protect themselves.
SC: Mancuso helped negotiate a deal with the Colombian government that allowed more than 30,000 paramilitaries to give up their arms and demobilize in return for reduced prison sentences. As part of the deal, the paramilitaries must truthfully confess to all crimes or face much harsher penalties.
SC: Was Chiquita the only American company that paid you?
SM: All companies in the banana region paid. For instance, there was Dole and Del Monte, which I believe are US companies.
SC: Both the Dole Food Company and Fresh Del Monte Produce, which is not affiliated with Del Monte Foods, have issued statements strongly denying they made payments to the paramilitaries. Fresh Del Monte Produce says their Colombian operation is limited to a sales office which purchases bananas from independent growers.
SC: Dole and Del Monte said they never paid you any money.
SM: Chiquita has been honest by acknowledging the reality of the conflict and the payments that it made. The others also made payments—not only international companies, but also the national companies in the region.
SC: So you’re saying Dole and Del Monte are lying.
SM: I’m saying they all paid.
SC: Mancuso has been indicted in the US for smuggling 17 tons of cocaine into the country. He said he was more than willing to tell US prosecutors anything they wanted to know.
SC: Has anyone come down here from the United States, the USS Department to talk to you about Dole or to talk to you about Del Monte or any other companies?
SM: No one has come from the Department of Justice of the United States to talk to us. I’m taking this opportunity to invite the Department of State and the Department of Justice so that they can come and I can tell them all they want to know.
SC: And you would name names?
SM: Certainly. I would do so.
SC: So far the only company that has been charged with paying money to the terrorists in Colombia is the one that turned itself in.
SC: Do you think that if you haven’t gone to the Justice Department and disclose the situation that anything would have happened to you?
FA: Oh Mr. Croft, if we haven’t gone to the Justice Department we probably would not be here talking about this. No one would know about this.
SC: Since our story aired, Salvatore Mancuso has been extradited to the US to face drug charges, and the Colombian government has stepped up its investigation of Dole. Two jailed paramilitary leaders have corroborated Mancuso’s claims that they received protection money from the company.