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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Chiquita found liable for paramilitary killings in Colombia

Victory for the victims follows 17 years of litigation. The multinational fruit company plans to appeal.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) — Human rights advocates praised a jury decision ordering Chiquita Brands International to pay $38.3 million to family members of eight men killed by a Colombian paramilitary group, calling the verdict a landmark case holding a major U.S. corporation accountable for human rights abuses abroad.

“This verdict sends a powerful message to corporations everywhere: profiting from human rights abuses will not go unpunished,” said Marco Simons of Earthrights International, a nonprofit focusing on human rights and the environment. “These families, victimized by armed groups and corporations, asserted their power and prevailed in the judicial process.”

Monday’s verdict out of the U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach included the finding that Chiquita “knowingly provided substantial assistance” to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, a paramilitary group hired to maintain control of vast banana plantations in the country’s Uraba and Magdalena regions.

The plaintiffs, who included the wives and children of farmers and trade unionists, said the terrorist group carried out hundreds of extrajudicial killings of those opposed to Chiquita's labor and environmental practices.

Even after the United States designated the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia a terrorist organization in 2001, the group continued to receive money from the banana company: a total of $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004.

In 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty to violating anti-terrorist laws and paid $25 million in fines. The series of civil suits that followed were consolidated into a South Florida class action.

The case continued to wind through the federal court system until this week; trial lasted six weeks and the jury reached its decision on Monday.

“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,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, one of the attorneys of Cohen Milstein Sellers and Toll law firm leading the case.

“Our clients risked their lives to come forward to hold Chiquita to account, putting their faith in the United States justice system.  I am very grateful to the jury for the time and care they took to evaluate the evidence.”

Chiquita will appeal the decision.

“The situation in Colombia was tragic for so many, including those directly affected by the violence there, and our thoughts remain with them and their families,” a company spokesperson said. “However, that does not change our belief that there is no legal basis for these claims. While we are disappointed by the decision, we remain confident that our legal position will ultimately prevail.”

In court documents, Chiquita argued that it hired the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia to protect its own employees during Colombia’s long running civil war and fell victim to extortion.

A second trial with another group of surviving family members is scheduled to begin in July.

After a long seventeen years against a well-funded defense, justice was finally served,” said Leslie Kroeger, another attorney representing the plaintiffs. We look forward to the next round of bellwether trials and will continue to fight for our clients.”

The jury’s decision garnered reaction in Colombia as well.

Gerardo Vega, a human rights advocate and former director of the country’s National Land Agency, said the Colombian justice system still needs to “condemn the companies that are subsidiaries of Chiquita.”

“There have been almost 30 years of impunity in Colombia and the victims are still waiting for reparation,” he said in a video statement.

Follow @alexbpickett
Categories / Courts, International

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