Although the multinational banana company has already been sanctioned in that country for its links with paramilitary groups in Colombia, this is the first time it has had to answer in court to the families of people murdered by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

It has taken 17 years, but a group of victims has achieved what was considered impossible: the opening today of a civil case that could force the banana company Chiquita Brands International to pay reparations to the victims of the paramilitaries to whom it paid millions of dollars when they operated in the Urabá region of Antioquia.

The first lawsuits were filed in 2007, including Doe (a code name used by the US justice system for victims who wish to remain anonymous) against Chiquita, a class action lawsuit of around 3,000 victims, brought by EarthRights International, an NGO specializing in environmental and human rights issues, in coordination with several law firms.

In 2008, a “judicial panel”, the Colombian equivalent of a multi-judge court, ordered that several cases be consolidated in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida in West Palm Beach.

Three years later, the multinational sought to have the case dismissed, arguing that it should be tried in Colombia rather than the US. This motion was denied by the Federal Court of South Florida in 2016.

In 2019, that court ruled that there was insufficient evidence that the AUC had killed the victims in these cases, after what their lawyer said was an improper exclusion of documents from the Justice and Peace process in Colombia. It should be recalled that this was the transitional justice mechanism created in Colombia to try to demobilise AUC members by granting them alternative sentences in exchange for confessing to their crimes and making reparations to the victims they left behind when they took up arms.

In 2022, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit overturned the decision to exclude the Justice and Peace documents, finding that there was sufficient evidence of paramilitary involvement in the murders of the plaintiffs’ relatives.

This decision led to the opening of the trial, which has the characteristic of representing part of the universe of victims of the Doe vs. Chiquita case who are demanding justice on US soil.

The Southern District Court of Florida selected a group of bellwether cases to continue the trial. Bellwether trials are often used in cases with a large number of different victims to guide the future resolution of the entire universe of victims’ claims.

The selection of ten jurors, who will hear testimony from the parties, analyse the evidence and decide for or against the plaintiffs, was completed yesterday.

The first witness for the plaintiffs will be Fernando Aguirre, former president of Chiqui<ta.

The history of donations to the AUC

It is no secret that the multinational Chiquita Brands has been funding paramilitary groups in the Urabá region of Antioquia. In fact, in March 2007, a court in Washington approved an agreement reached by the company with the Department of Justice to pay a fine of $25 million after admitting that it had made more than 100 payments to the AUC totaling $1.7 million.

Not one cent of this multi-million dollar fine went to reparations for the victims of paramilitarism in this agro-industrial region. At the time, the company claimed that it had been forced to pay extortion money to protect its workers.

However, documents released in a US court case by the National Security Archive (NSA), a non-governmental research group based in Washington, D.C., show that several of the banana company’s directors were involved in concealing these payments to the AUC.

On 6 January 2000, Robert Kistinger, head of Chiquita’s banana division based in Cincinnati, Ohio, told the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that he had direct knowledge of the payments to the armed groups. This testimony was declassified by the NSA, and in it he confessed: “We’re not going to stop doing business in Colombia because, you know, we’re going to have to spend an extra $25,000. That’s not realistic, is it?

But before making payments to the paramilitaries, Chiquita Brands did the same with the various guerrilla groups present in Urabá and Magdalena. The situation changed with the expansion of the paramilitaries and in 1997, when executives of the multinational met with Carlos Castaño, the head and spokesman of the AUC.

The payments to paramilitary groups were initially made through several private security and surveillance cooperatives, known as Convivir, created under the government of then President César Gaviria (1990-1994) and consolidated under Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), until the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional in 1997 part of the law authorizing them to possess and carry weapons for the private use of the armed forces.

Nevertheless, one of them, Convivir Papagayo, continued to operate as a regulated security company without weapons for the private use of the armed forces. The investigation carried out by the NSA and, The New Chiquita Brands Papers, shows that a sophisticated payment mechanism was set up through this organization.

The strategy was designed and directed by Raúl Hasbún, a banana businessman who joined the AUC as head of the Arlex Hurtado Front, an urban unit that operated in the municipalities of Apartadó, Carepa, and Chigorodó, located in the Urabá region of Antioquia, where a high percentage of banana farms are concentrated.

According to the report, Chiquita agreed to contribute three cents on the dollar for each box exported through this Convivir, to be deducted from monthly payments to growers. Chiquita Brands calculates that between 1997 and 2004, $1.7 million was paid.

Now, more than 3,000 victims of seven years of paramilitary violence in the Urabá region see a chance to get the justice and reparations that have eluded them for more than two decades. The civil trial against the multinational, which began today, is expected to last six weeks.