Colombia: Ex-Paramilitary Implicates Two U.S. Companies in Murder of Trade Unionists

Dole Food Company and Chiquita Brands International paid a Colombian terrorist organization to perform protection services that included murdering trade unionists, demobilized paramilitary José Gregorio Mongones said in an affidavit released December 6. The testimony is the centerpiece of two civil lawsuits against Chiquita and Dole filed by family members of victims of paramilitary violence in Colombia. Both lawsuits accuse the companies of funding the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (Colombian United Self-Defense Units, or AUC), the country's largest paramilitary organization, formally demobilized in 2006.

Juan Smith

Dole Food Company and Chiquita Brands International paid a Colombian terrorist organization to perform protection services that included murdering trade unionists, demobilized paramilitary José Gregorio Mongones said in an affidavit released December 6.

The testimony is the centerpiece of two civil lawsuits against Chiquita and Dole filed by family members of victims of paramilitary violence in Colombia. Both lawsuits accuse the companies of funding the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (Colombian United Self-Defense Units, or AUC), the country's largest paramilitary organization, formally demobilized in 2006.

Mongones, better known by his alias "Carlos Tijeras," assumed the command of the AUC's William Rivas Front in the banana-growing department of Magdalena in March 2002, inheriting a protection arrangement in which Chiquita paid the group "three cents on the dollar per box of bananas shipped from Colombia," according to his affidavit. Dole paid the paramilitaries a tax of 70,000 pesos per hectare of land in the Front's area of control in the Department of Magdalena, the statement said. In return, Mongones said, the William Rivas Front protected the companies from threats posed by groups including leftist guerrillas, hostile unions, and common thieves.

Mongones names 12 people whose assassinations he says he ordered after Dole informed him that they belonged to or sympathized with leftist guerrillas. In all, he has confessed to ordering more than 500 murders. His confessions have come since the Peace, Justice, and Reparation Process began in 2006, under the terms of which paramilitaries receive a maximum of eight years in prison if they confess to their crimes.

Chiquita pled guilty in 2007 to paying over $1.7 million to the AUC, a State Department-designated terrorist group since 2001, and the company paid $25 million in fines. Heirs to the victims of paramilitary violence filed a civil suit against Chiquita shortly thereafter. Current U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder defended Chiquita in the Justice Department suit that ended in 2007.

Dole denied supporting Colombian paramilitaries in a press release dated April 29, the day after 73 heirs of murdered Colombians filed a civil suit against the company in Los Angeles. "The allegations in the complaint are based on nothing more than the false confessions of convicted terrorists from Colombia, who had every motive to lie about their activities in order to minimize their jail time for their terrorist crimes," the press release said. Dole's media relations contact said in an email that the company's "comments are unchanged" from those in the April release.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Terry Collingsworth, disagreed, saying in an interview that Tijeras and the other demobilized paramilitaries "are going to get their years based on how many people they killed, not whether they turn Dole in." The involvement of multinational companies in paramilitary violence is "not a factor at all in their criminal cases" in Colombia, he added.

Collingsworth says former paramilitary commanders are talking about their alleged involvement with Dole out of anger at the Colombian government for not extending amnesty to them in exchange for demobilization. The Colombian Congress voted not to extend amnesty to demobilized paramilitaries in the 2005 Law of Peace and Justice, although the law provides for reduced sentences of up to eight years for those who testify about their crimes.

"They feel like they got sold out. They've got nothing to lose so they're confessing. And they're going get eight years so they might as well tell the complete story and talk about who else was involved in it," Collingsworth said of the ex-paramilitary commanders in an interview.

Regardless of their motivations for talking, the lawsuit against Dole will hinge largely on whether the U.S. courts choose to take admitted mass murderers at their word. "If it's just oral testimony, they're going to have a hard time in this case. Dole's defense is going to carry a lot of weight in the U.S. courts because these witnesses are not seen as credible," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Center of International Policy in Washington. Isacson said the plaintiffs would need to corroborate the paramilitaries' testimony with that of other witnesses or documents.

Two non-governmental organizations-La Isla Foundation and International Rights Advocates-joined the plaintiffs' law firm, Conrad and Sherer, to launch the Banana Land Campaign, at which Mongones's affidavit was released on Sunday, Dec. 6, at the Harlem School of the Arts. The campaign aims to raise public awareness about the role of multinational companies in Colombia. The campaign also offered a preview of Jason Glaser's documentary film The Affected.

The organizers timed the launch of the campaign to coincide with the anniversary of the 1928 massacre by the Colombian military of striking banana plantation workers employed by the United Fruit Company at La Ciénaga-an event best known to American readers through the fictionalized account in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The Justice Department did not return phone calls and email messages asking if it planned to investigate the allegations that Dole paid the AUC for protection. Providing material assistance to a State Department-designated terrorist group is a federal crime.

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Juan Smith is the pseudonym of a U.S. reporter in Colombia.

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