(CN) - Three U.S. citizens were held hostage by a Colombian death squad for 5 years, and one was murdered, while Chiquita Brands International gave the terrorists weapons and millions of dollars in "protection payments," the former hostages and their families claim in Tampa Federal Court.
Former hostages of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) say Chiquita owes them treble damages under the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act, because the New Jersey-based company paid FARC up to $200,000 a year for 10 years.
In a March 2007 plea agreement, Chiquita admitted it had paid $25 million and funded the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) - a right-wing, anti-labor death squad - and other terrorist groups, according to the eight plaintiffs' 82-page complaint.
The FARC and the AUC fought for control of land and lucrative cocaine crops for years, through open war, death squads and terror.
A February 2009 report from the Special Litigation Committee of the Chiquita board of directors found that the company began paying FARC "protection money" in the late 1980s.
In 2003 the FARC shot down a plane carrying Keith Stansell, Marc Gosalves, Thomas Howes and Thomas Janis, who were conducting a civilian counternarcotics surveillance mission for their employer, Northrup Grumman.
The plane's five passengers all survived the crash, but FARC members shot to death the U.S. citizen pilot, Janis, and the Colombian host-nation rider, Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, within minutes of taking the group hostage, according to the complaint.
Stansell, Gosalves, Howes and Janis' wife and four children demand damages from Chiquita for its giving money, arms and ammunition to FARC - "a foreign terrorist organization that has killed, maimed, injured, kidnapped and held hostage thousands of civilians, including many U.S. citizens," according to the complaint.
The three hostages say they were held captive for 1,967 days, until they were rescued on July 2, 2008.
The FARC publicly took credit for the kidnapping and promised to release the Americans and 250 high-level Colombian citizens in exchange for certain political concessions, territory in a demilitarized zone for FARC's base of operations, and the release of hundreds of FARC combatants apprehended by the Colombian authorities, according to the complaint.
"FARC supports its operations through kidnappings, extortion, drug trafficking and 'war taxes' it collects from residents, businesses and landowners," according to the complaint.
Chiquita made its first "guerrilla payment" of $10,000 to Chiquita in 1989 - when the banana giant opened its Banadex export subsidiary in Colombia - and ultimately paid $100,000 to $200,000 a year through 1999, according to the complaint.
"Over time, the payments were fixed to a percentage of Banadex's gross revenues, with as much as 10 percent being diverted to FARC," the complaint states.
The former hostages say Chiquita knew about FARC's practice of murdering and kidnapping Americans. At least 23 Americans were taken hostage between 1993 and 1997. But Chiquita benefited from its relationship with terrorists and spent years covering it up, according to the complaint.
"During the period relevant to this action, FARC held significant influence over, controlled, or was fighting other terrorist organizations for control of labor unions in Colombia's banana-growing regions," the complaint states.
The former hostages say Chiquita worked with FARC-controlled labor unions, such as Sintrabanano, and helped FARC subvert many local labor unions.
By helping FARC wrest control of local labor unions, Chiquita carved out "a competitive advantage over other banana growers facing less accommodating unions," according to the complaint. Chiquita also allegedly benefited from FARC's harassment of competitors in the region.
"Defendants knew that FARC engaged in acts of terrorism against U.S. interests in Colombia and knew the danger that providing material support to FARC would pose to the safety of other individuals and entities working within Colombia, but defendant ignored these risks in order to further their own narrow business interests in growing and exporting bananas in Colombia," according to the complaint.
The former hostages and Janis' family seek treble damages from Chiquita. They are represented by Newton Porter with Porter & Korvick of Miami.