Chiquita’s Paramilitary Payoffs Detailed in Trove of Declassified Documents

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Confidential internal memos from Chiquita Brands International reveal that the banana giant benefited from its payments to Colombian paramilitary and guerrilla groups, contradicting the company’s 2007 plea agreement with U.S. prosecutors, which claimed that the company had never received “any actual security services or actual security equipment in exchange for the payments.” Chiquita had characterized the payments as “extortion.”

These documents are among thousands that Chiquita turned over to the U.S. Justice Department as part of a sentencing deal in which the company admitted to years of illegal payments to the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) – a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization – and agreed to pay a $25 million fine. The Archive has obtained more than 5,500 pages of Chiquita’s internal documents from the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act and is publishing the entire set online today. Key documents from the Chiquita Papers are included in the recently-published document collection, Colombia and the United States: Political Violence, Narcotics, and Human Rights, 1948-2010, now available as part of the Digital National Security Archive from ProQuest.

The documents provide evidence of mutually-beneficial “transactions” between Chiquita’s Colombian subsidiaries and several illegal armed groups in Colombia and shed light on more than a decade of security-related payments to guerrillas, paramilitaries, Colombian security forces, and government-sponsored “Convivir” militia groups. The collection also details the company’s efforts to conceal the so-called “sensitive payments” in the expense accounts of company managers and through other accounting tricks. The Justice Department investigation concluded that many of Chiquita’s payments to the AUC (also referred to as “Autodefensas” in many of the documents) were made through legal Convivir organizations ostensibly overseen by the Colombian army.

New evidence indicating that Chiquita benefited from the illicit payments may increase the company’s exposure to lawsuits representing victims of Colombia’s illegal armed groups. The collection is the result of an Archive collaboration with George Washington University Law School’s International Human Rights and Public Justice Advocac. Clinics and has been used in support of a civil suit brought against Chiquita led by Earth Rights International on behalf of hundreds of Colombian victims of paramilitary violence.

“These extraordinary records are the most detailed account to date of the true cost of doing business in Colombia,” said Michael Evans, director of the National Security Archive’s Colombia documentation project. “Chiquita’s apparent quid pro quo with guerrillas and paramilitaries responsible for countless killings belies the company’s 2007 plea deal with the Justice Department. What we still don’t know is why U.S. prosecutors overlooked what appears to be clear evidence that Chiquita benefited from these transactions.”

The company’s effort to conceal indications that it benefited from the payments is evident in a pair of legal memos from January 1994. The first of these indicates that leftist guerrillas provided security at some of Chiquita’s plantations. The general manager of Chiquita operations in Turbó told company attorneys that guerrillas were “used to supply security personnel at the various farms.” A handwritten annotation on a subsequent draft of the document asks, “Why is this relevant?” and, “Why is this being written?” Throughout the document, lawyers have crossed out the word “transactions” – suggestive of a quid pro quo arrangement – and replaced it with the more neutral term “payments.” Company accountants characterized the expenditures as “guerrilla extortion payments” but recorded them in the books as “citizen security,” according to these memos. (* See Note 1)

Another document shows that Chiquita also paid right-wing paramilitary forces for security services – including intelligence on guerrilla operations – after the AUC wrested control of the region from guerrillas in the mid-1990s. The March 2000 memo, written by Chiquita Senior Counsel Robert Thomas and based on a convesation with managers from Chiquita’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Banadex, indicate that Santa Marta-based paramilitaries formed a front company, Manglar Investments (Inversiones Manglar), to disguise “the real purpose of providing security.” (** See Note 2)

Ostensibly an agricultural export business, Inversiones Manglar actually produced “info on guerrilla movements,” according to the memo. Banadex officials told Thomas that “all other banana companies are contributing in Santa Marta” and that Chiquita “should continue making the payments” as they “can’t get the same level of support from the military.”

The Chiquita Papers also highlight the role of the Colombian military in pressuring the company to finance the AUC through the Convivir groups and in facilitating the illegal payments.

One indication of this is found in another document written by Thomas in September 2000 describing the 1997 meeting where notorious AUC leader Carlos Castaño first suggested to Banadex managers that they support a newly-established Convivir called La Tagua del Darien. According to the memo, the Banadex officials said that they had “no choice but to attend the meeting” as “refusing to meet would antagonize the Colombia military, local and state govenment officials, and Autodefensas.” (*** See Note 3)

Among the officials most supportive of the Convivir groups during this time was Álvaro Uribe, then the governor of Antioquia, the hub of Chiquita’s operations in Colombia. Thomas’ September 2000 memo notes that, “It was well-known at the time that senior officers of the Colombian military and the Governor of the Department of Antioquia were campaigning for the establishment of a Convivir organization in Uraba.” A 1995 memo indicates that both Uribe and another politician, Alfonso Nuñez, received substantial donations from another of Chiquita’s Colombian subsidiaries, the Sevilla Fruit Company (Compañía Frutera de Sevilla). Uribe was president of Colombia from 2002-2010.

Later that year, an August 1997 legal memo written on Chiquita letterhead says that the company was “member[s] of an organization called CONVIVIR Puntepiedra, S.A.,” which the author characterizes as “a legal entity in which we participate with other banana exporting companies in the Turbó region.” The memo says that the “sole function” of the the Convivir was “to provide information on guerrilla movements.”

The company had been making sensitive security payments for years – first in the form of direct payoffs to military officers and guerrilla groups, then through local trade organizations and the Convivir militias. For 1991, some $15,000 worth of “sensitive payments” to various units of the Colombian military are listed alongside a more than $31,000 disbursement to “Guerrilla.” A different version of the same document omits the names of the payment recipients but includes a handwritten annotation next to the “Guerrilla” entry that says, “Extortion Payment.” Another annotation reads, “Mainly not illegal payments – these are legal – pay gasoline, army, police, politicians – payment doesn’t provide anything or benefits.” [Emphasis added.]

Accounting records from 1997-1998 also point to the role of Colombian security forces in encouraging the company’s illegal paramilitary payments. Beginning in the second quarter of 1997 and continuing through the second quarter of 1998, sensitive payment schedules for Banadex record large payments to Convivir as “Donation to citizen reconaissance group made at request of Army.” Similar records from 2002 and 2003 list Convivir payments alongside disbursements to “Military and Police Officials” for “Facilitating payments for security services.”

Another handwritten document from 1999 reveals an apparent effort by a Colombian Army general to establish himself as an intermediary for the paramilitary payments. The document (transcribed here) describes a “General in the zone for several years” who had been accused of being “with [a] death squad” by the mayor of San José de Apartadó and had been “suspended from the Army.” The document notes that the general had “helped us personally” with “Security” and “information that prevented kidnaps.” The notes make oblique reference to a $9,000 payment, adding that “Other companies are putting in their…”

“The Chiquita Papers reinforce the idea that, by 1997, the AUC ran the show in the banana-growing regions of northern Colombia, and that local government officials, military officers, and business leaders supported their paramilitary operations,” said Evans.

“These troublesome revelations are more than academic,” said Professor Arturo Carrillo, Director of GW’s International Human Rights Clinic. “They reinforce the claim, advanced in half a dozen federal lawsuits currently pending against Chiquita, that the company was knowingly complicit in, and thus liable for, the atrocities committed by the AUC in Urabá while on the Chiquita payroll. One can only hope that the revealing information obtained and published by the National Security Archive will lead to greater accountability for Chiquita’s criminal actions in Colombia, since the company’s plea agreement with the Justice Department, which has refused to prosecute Chiquita executives for wrongdoing, amounts to little more than a slap on the corporate wrist.”

“The publication of these documents is just the beginning,” added Evans. “The thousands of pages of financial and legal records included in this collection are the seeds of future research projects for investigators prepared to deconstruct the complex web of legal, psuedo-legal, and illegal entities involved in Chiquita’s security operations, including military officers, guerrillas, paramilitary thugs, prominent businessmen, trade associations, and Convivir militias.”

(Reprinted with permission from Verdad Abierta and the National Security Archive.)

Notes

Note 1: A 1997 legal memo drawn up by Chiquita’s U.S. counsel specifically warned that an extortion defense would not apply in situations where the company actually benefited from the payments. Another legal memo from the company’s attorneys in Colombia cautioned that payments to ostensibly legal Convivir militias could be considered illegal if there were actual or constructive knowledge that they were connected to illegal activities.

Note 2: Although Thomas’ name does not appear in any of these records, his authorship has been confirmend by comparing the documents to the report of the Special Litigation Committee (SLC) established by Chiquita’s Board of Directors that issued its final report in 2009.

Note 3: Although the identity of the paramilitary leader who first approached the Banadex officials is not revealed in the redacted document, both the SLC report and the sentencing agreement confirm that it was Castaño who was at the meeting and who personally requested that the company support the La Tagua group.

*Michael Evans is the director of the National Security Archive’s Colombia documentation project.

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