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Funding terror in Colombia banana republic: a case study of dirty US corporate intervention

Ten years ago, Chiquita Brands International became the first U.S.-based corporation convicted of violating a U.S. law against funding an international terrorist group—the paramilitary United Self-defense Forces of Colombia* (AUC). But punishment for the crime was reserved only for the corporate entity, while the names of the individual company officials who engineered the payments have since remained hidden behind a wall of impunity.

As Colombian authorities now prepare to prosecute business executives for funding groups responsible for major atrocities during Colombia’s decades-old conflict, a new set of Chiquita Papers, made possible through the National Security Archive’s FOIA lawsuit, has for the first time made it possible to know the identities and understand the roles of the individual Chiquita executives who approved and oversaw years of payments to groups responsible for countless human rights violations in Colombia.

National Security Archive

Key points:

  • In secret testimony on January 6, 2000 Robert F. Kistinger, head of Chiquita’s Banana Group based in Cincinnati, Ohio, told the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] he had direct knowledge about many of the payments to armed groups, especially when they began in the late 1980s, but claimed that he had become less and less involved with the specifics over time. In his view, the amounts of money paid to the groups—hundreds of thousands of dollars per year—were simply not large enough to affect the company’s bottom line.

  • The secret, sworn statements from the SEC probe are the de facto oral history of Chiquita’s ties to terrorist groups in Colombia—a unique and damning firsthand account of how one multinational corporation developed and routinized a system of secret transactions with actors on all sides of the conflict in order to maintain normal business operations—even thrive—in one of the most conflictive regions of the world, all the while treating the payments as little more than the “cost of doing business in Colombia.”

  • The AUC was a loose federation of rightist militants and drug traffickers responsible for a terrible legacy of violent acts in Colombia going back to the 1980s. Chiquita began to pay the AUC sometime in 1996-1997, just as the group launched a nationwide campaign of assassinations and massacres aimed at unionists, political activists, public officials and other perceived guerrilla supporters, often working with the collaboration or complicity of Colombian security forces. Over the next several years, the AUC dramatically increased its numbers and firepower, raised its political profile, infiltrated Colombian institutions, drove thousands of Colombians from their homes, and for the first time challenged guerrilla groups for control of strategic areas around the country. Chiquita agreed to pay a relatively modest $25 million fine as part of its deal with the DOJ [U.S. Department of Justice], but not a single company executive has ever been held responsible for bankrolling the AUC’s wave of terror. Nor have any Chiquita officials faced justice for millions more in outlays to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and practically every other violent actor in the region.

  • Efforts to hold individual Chiquita executives accountable for financing the groups are complicated by a deliberate decision on the part of the U.S. Justice Department to withhold the names of the people behind the payments scheme. At the September 2007 sentencing hearing in the terror payments case, U.S. government attorneys specifically argued against the public identification of the Chiquita officials “to protect the reputational and privacy interests of uncharged individuals.”

  • The key that unlocks many of the mysteries of the Chiquita Papers is the secret testimony given by Kistinger and six other Chiquita officials during the SEC’s expansive bribery investigation. Through a relatively simple, if laborious, process of cross-referencing among the three sources, it is possible to identify almost all of the individuals whose names were scrubbed from the Factual Proffer, the SLC [Chiquita’s Special Litigation Committee] Report, and the SEC testimony—effectively stripping away the redactions that have shielded Chiquita personnel from scrutiny and that have helped guarantee impunity for individuals linked to the payments.

  • As the most thoroughly-documented case study on the role of multinational corporations in Colombia’s conflict, the new set of Chiquita Papers should factor into the forthcoming investigations of transitional justice authorities created by the recent peace accord with the FARC. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) will prosecute the most serious crimes committed during the conflict, while the recently-approved Colombian Truth Commission is an extrajudicial body established to provide clarification about the worst abuses of the conflict and to explain the phenomena that perpetuated the longest continuous war in the world.

  • Buried inside nearly 400 pages of SEC testimony are many of the clues needed to learn the identities of executives and managers at Chiquita who authorized and carried out the “sensitive payments” program but whose names Chiquita, the DOJ, and the SEC tried to hide from public view.

  • To Ordman [former Senior Vice President of European Banana Sourcing for the Chiquita Fresh Group] and Kistinger, who were based outside of the Colombian “war zone,” payments to insurgents and death squads, alarming at first, soon became business as usual—the price to be paid for access to the rich plantations of Colombia’s violently-contested Atlantic coast. In their SEC statements, both describe a process of becoming comfortable with the legal justifications in place and the specific procedures the company had established to handle the payments. Kistinger said he viewed the payments as a “normal expenditure,” not unlike the purchase of fertilizers or agrichemicals—“an ongoing cost” of the company’s business operations.

  • The SEC transcripts reveal that Chiquita’s Colombia-based staff were less comfortable with the payments than their bosses in Costa Rica and Cincinnati, and that at least one employee openly questioned whether the company had moved beyond protection payments and was willingly funding the operations of violent groups.

Full report, links and documents:



* The United Self-Defenders of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC, in Spanish) was a Colombian paramilitary and drug trafficking group which was an active belligerent in the Colombian armed conflict during the period from 1997 to 2006. The AUC was responsible for attacks against the FARC and ELN rebel groups as well as numerous attacks against civilians beginning in 1997 with the Mapiripán Massacre.

The militia had its roots in the 1980s when militias were established by drug lords to combat rebel kidnappings and extortion. In April 1997 the AUC was formed through a merger, orchestrated by the ACCU, of local right-wing militias, each intending to protect different local economic, social and political interests by fighting left-wing insurgents in their areas.

The organization was initially led by Carlos Castaño until his murder in 2004 and the organization was believed to have links to some local military commanders in the Colombian Armed Forces. Amnesty International calls the paramilitarys groups army of Colombia's Auxiliary forces and Human Rights Watch the sixth division.

The AUC had about 20,000 members and was heavily financed through the drug trade and through support from local landowners, cattle ranchers, mining or petroleum companies and politicians.

The Colombian military has been accused of delegating to AUC paramilitaries the task of murdering peasants and labor union leaders, amongst others suspected of supporting the rebel movements and the AUC publicly and explicitly singled out 'political and trade union operatives of the extreme left' as legitimate targets. The AUC was designated as a terrorist organization by many countries and organizations, including the United States, Canada and the European Union.

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