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Chiquita Held Liable for Deaths During Colombian Civil War

The New York Times

June 11, 2024

A South Florida jury found the company liable for killings committed by a paramilitary group that was on the banana producer’s payroll.

The jury on Monday ordered the multinational banana producer to pay $38.3 million to 16 family members of farmers and other civilians who were killed in separate episodes by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia — a right-wing paramilitary group that Chiquita bankrolled from 1997 to 2004.

The company has faced hundreds of similar suits in U.S. courts filed by the families of other victims of violence by the paramilitary group in Colombia, but the verdict in Florida represents the first time Chiquita has been found culpable.

The decision, which the company said it planned to appeal, could influence the outcome in other suits, legal experts said.

The verdict in favor of the victims is a rare instance — in Colombia and elsewhere — in which a private corporation is held accountable to victims for its operation in regions with widespread violence or social unrest, legal experts said.

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Agnieszka Fryszman, another lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, said, “The verdict does not bring back the husbands and sons who were killed, but it sets the record straight and places accountability for funding terrorism where it belongs: at Chiquita’s doorstep.”

The jurors reached their decision after two days of deliberation and six weeks of trial in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, in which lawyers argued over the motivation for payments that Chiquita executives admitted making to the paramilitary group.

The State Department designated the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia as a foreign terrorist organization in 2001.

Chiquita, as part of a plea deal with the Department of Justice to settle charges of doing business with a terrorist group, admitted in 2007 to having paid the paramilitaries $1.7 million, as an investigation revealed.

The United Self-Defense Forces were a product of Colombia’s brutal civil war, which erupted in the 1960s and killed at least 220,000 people.

They formed in 1997 as a coalition of heavily armed far-right groups that drug traffickers and businesspeople turned to for protection from leftist guerrilla groups.

The war ended in 2016 when the government and the main leftist group, which was also responsible for killing civilians, signed a peace deal.

Lawyers representing the families in the South Florida trial argued that Chiquita’s operations benefited from the company’s relationship with the paramilitary group, which sowed fear across a 7,000-square-mile fertile farming region connecting Panama and Colombia until it disbanded in 2006.

They said the group killed or forced out farmers, allowing Chiquita to buy land at depressed values and expand its operations by converting plantain farms to more profitable banana farms.

. . .

Some victims who were part of the lawsuit were killed in front of their family members, lawyers for the plaintiffs said.

In one case, an unidentified girl was traveling to a farm by taxi with her mother and stepfather when they were stopped by gunmen, the lawyers said during the trial. The men executed the stepfather and then fatally shot the mother as she tried to run away. They then gave the girl the equivalent of 65 cents to take a bus back to town.

Read Chiquita Held Liable for Deaths During Colombian Civil War.