(CN) – The families of Colombians killed by right-wing paramilitary groups want compensation from former executives of the Chiquita banana company, who they say armed and funded the death squads.
In a complaint filed March 11 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, more than 200 relatives of the slain claim nothing short of “a campaign of terror” was carried out by paramilitary groups in Colombia’s Uraba region to maintain control of vast banana plantations owned by Chiquita.
The plaintiffs, who are identified only as John and Jane Does, go on to claim that former Chiquita CEO Cyrus Freidheim and manager Charles Keiser violated U.S., Colombian and international laws against torture, extrajudicial killing and other “crimes against humanity” by directing the activity.
According to the 155-page complaint, Chiquita made regular monthly payments to security forces controlled by the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia, or AUC, totaling more than $1.7 million.
These payments were reviewed and approved by company executives, including Freidheim and Keiser, the families say. Keiser even met with the group in the mid-1990s to discuss the payments, they claim.
“Chiquita’s assistance helped the paramilitaries to consolidate as a decisive actor in the political, military, and social terrain of the banana region,” the complaint says. “In exchange for its financial support to the AUC, Chiquita was able to operate in an environment in which labor and community opposition to their operations and policies was suppressed.”
Even after the United States designated the AUC as a terrorist organization, the families say, Chiquita continued to fund them. Even repeated insistence by the company’s outside counsel did not stop the flow the money.
In 2007, Chiquita plead guilty in federal court to violating anti-terrorist laws.
Freidheim and Keiser, through their attorneys, did not respond to e-mails requesting comment.
In addition to paying the AUC, the complaint alleges Chiquita allowed drugs and arms to move through its private port. In some cases, crates containing thousands of guns were moved by company employees, the suit says, while millions of dollars worth of drugs were stowed on banana-filled boats bound for Europe.
The security payments and money gained from illicit activities funded the paramilitary’s attacks on the FARC and Colombian civilians accused of sympathizing with the leftist rebel group.
“By arming and financing the AUC, Chiquita intended to benefit from the AUC’s systematic killings of civilians,” the complaint states. “After its agreement with Chiquita, the AUC understood that one goal of its campaign of terror was to prevent work stoppages on banana plantations. … the AUC undertook an extensive campaign of murdering civilians in order to break the back of the unions.”
In page after page, the complaint details grisly atrocities at the hands of the paramilitary groups: a husband pulled from his motorbike, tortured and dismembered; a mother executed in front of her family; a daughter raped at her murdered father’s funeral.
The complaint also lists assaults and forced evictions of the surviving plaintiffs.
The lawsuit is the latest legal attempt by families seeking justice for thousands of workers, union organizers and political activists slain by the AUC.
For the last decade, another class action suit filed by EarthRights International against Chiquita has winded through the federal courts. Last November, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra of West Palm Beach rejected the banana company’s request to hear the case in Colombia, citing security risks to the plaintiffs. Earlier last year, Marra ruled another lawsuit against former Chiquita executives could move forward.
The plaintiffs are represented by Leslie Kroeger of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. She could not be reached for comment.