In March, Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International, pled guilty in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to making regular protection payments to Colombian right-wing paramilitary groups totaling some $1.7 million between 2001 and 2004.
The illegal payments were made, the company says, "to protect the lives of its employees," who had been threatened by leftist guerrillas in northwest Colombia where the fruit giant Chiquita Brands operated its subsidiary, Banadex.
This "excruciating dilemma," according to Chiquita, left the company with no alternative but to hand over more than 100 cash payoffs to paramilitary groups who have appeared on U.S. foreign terrorist hit lists since 2001 for engaging in sabotage, kidnapping, and the killing of civilians. Under the plea agreement, the District Court fined Chiquita $25 million for "Engaging in Transactions with a Specially-Designated Global Terrorist." Chiquita's guilty plea marks the first time that an American-based multinational has publicly admitted to making illegal payments to a terrorist organization
Chiquita became knowingly enmeshed in the complex dynamics of Colombia's internal armed conflict that pits government armed forces and illegally armed paramilitary groups against guerrilla groups.
Chiquita is likely to be the first of many U.S. based companies faced with charges of cooperating with paramilitaries abroad. Investigations into illegal business practices of American multinationals in Colombia and their alleged relationships with paramilitary groups are ongoing in both the United States, by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, and in Colombia by the attorney general.
Meanwhile, internationally connected trade unions, such as the United Steelworkers of America, are funding lawsuits in the United States against American corporations they believe have conspired with paramilitary groups to stifle trade union activity, and they claim has led to the killing of Colombian unionists. In Colombia it is an open secret that companies operating in areas controlled by an illegally armed group, be it the guerrillas or paramilitaries, are usually expected to make payments in exchange for protection and security.
There is no doubt that many companies are embroiled with paramilitaries, counter-insurgency right-wing groups originally created to defeat leftist guerrillas. Demobilized paramilitary commanders now serving jail sentences, talk openly about who paid the so-called "taxes," known locally as "una vacuna" (a vaccine). The outlaw paramilitaries used such payments to fund military campaigns against guerrilla groups, while at the same time inflicting a reign of terror on vulnerable urban and rural communities from the 1980s onwards.
"Everyone who had businesses in our areas of control paid us, whether they were foreign or Colombian," said Diego Murillo, a former paramilitary leader, from his prison cell at the Itagüí maximum-security prison earlier this month.
Another former paramilitary boss, Salvatore Mancuso, has testified to Colombian prosecutors that in recent years several foreign companies made payments to paramilitary groups once under his control—a statement that backs up Murillo's claim.
Colombia's attorney general, Mario Iguarán, also suspects such bent business practices between paramilitary groups and foreign multinationals have occurred and is pressing ahead with his own investigations to determine whether American corporations in Colombia colluded with paramilitary groups and were involved in criminal activities. He says executives of several American corporations in Colombia, if found guilty, could face extradition to the United States.
"The relationship was not one of the extortionist and the extorted but a criminal relationship," said Iguarán referring to the Chiquita plea agreement in late March.
The effort to combat these practices in U.S. courts began in the mid-1990s. Dan Kovalik, a human rights lawyer working in Pittsburgh, has led several high-profile lawsuits against American multinationals operating in Latin America. He estimates that there are currently some 24 lawsuits facing U.S. corporations with operations across the world, from Coca-Cola in Colombia and Daimler-Chrysler in Argentina to ExxonMobil in Indonesia and Chevron in Nigeria.
"During the last decade there's been a growing awareness of the globalization of capital and the ill-effects it brings to workers and the environment, prompting a string of lawsuits against American multinationals," said Kovalik. "In the case of Colombia, the prosecution of U.S. multinationals has also come about due to a close working partnership between U.S. labor unions and Colombian trade unions who are now speaking out about human rights abuses committed against their union members."
Most of the lawsuits have been filed under the Alien Torture Statute, a law allowing foreigners, usually the families of victims, to bring suits alleging violations of international human rights against American companies operating abroad in U.S. courts.
The first such suit to go to trial in front of a U.S. jury was Juan Aguas Romero et al v. Drummond Company, which was decided in favor of Drummond last month.
A lawsuit filed by the International Labor Rights Fund and the United Steelworkers of America, accused Drummond, an Alabama-based mining company, of colluding with local paramilitary groups to murder three union leaders in Colombia six years ago.
However, a federal jury ruled that Drummond Company was not guilty.
Despite the acquittal, Kovalik remains undeterred and hopes the case, the first of its kind to go to trial in a U.S. court using the Alien Torture Statute, will pave the way for similar trials in the future.
"The case sets an important precedent. We've submitted an appeal which is expected to be decided in the next few weeks, and we're hoping for a new trial with new witnesses," he said.
Meanwhile, important steps are being taken by lawmakers in the United States to unravel the alleged malpractices of U.S.-based multinationals doing business in Colombia.
Rep. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, recently launched an investigation into business practices of American companies operating in Colombia and their alleged role in human rights violations, including the killing of trade union members.
"It is our responsibility to determine the truthfulness of these accusations. Our efforts in this regard, to the issue of the Colombian people and all of Latin America, for that matter, is to show that we don't have one standard for them and another for us," Delahunt told a congressional subcommittee hearing in June.
Today, the issue of unionist killings in Colombia and labor rights is particularly sensitive as Colombia and the United States negotiate a troubled bilateral Free Trade Agreement.
Colombia, a key ally of the Bush administration in the region and largest recipient of U.S. aid in the Western Hemisphere, is one of the world's most dangerous places in which to be a union member, according to a July Amnesty International report. According to Amnesty, six out of every 10 trade unionists murdered in the world are Colombian.
Kovalik says the relationship between paramilitary groups and American corporations is often mercenary. "U.S. companies, particularly in the extractive industries, have got involved with paramilitary groups, it appears, as a means to carry [out] their business design," explained Kovalik, who has spent six years working on such cases. "The paramilitaries for a lot of firms are a type of security agency that helps companies deal with peasant and indigenous groups and trade unions that threaten access to freely exploit the land."
Francisco Ramirez, a union leader for 16 years and president of Sintraminercol, Colombia's main mining union, believes foreign multinationals are complicit in the murder of Colombian trade unionists killed by paramilitary groups.
"We are convinced that the multinational companies that go to Colombia have to have economic guarantees and security guarantees, but this shouldn't translate into corruption and violence. It is a common practice in Colombia for the state and the multinational companies to kill union leaders to get higher profits. The multinational companies in Colombia are committing illegal practices from the moment they arrive," Ramirez told a U.S. congressional subcommittee hearing in late June.
Meanwhile international labor unions and human rights groups continue their campaigns to hold American multinationals accountable.
"We'll continue to work in Colombia to reduce the number of trade union killings," says Kovalik. "We're pressing on with other trials such as Oxy and Coca-cola bottling plants in Colombia which are in the process of appeal."