Lawsuit reveals Chiquita’s role in financing Colombian death squads

Graphic: earthrights.org

A jury in South Florida has found Chiquita Brands International complicit in the murders of eight Colombians through its proxy militia, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defenders of Colombia). Chiquita has been ordered to pay over $38 million to families of the death squad’s victims. Of the hundreds of claims filed against the corporation, theirs were among just a handful which advanced to U.S. courts.

For nearly 30 years, Chiquita has armed and funded the AUC to break strikes, intimidate rural peasant and working-class communities and assassinate union organizers. In just seven years, between 1997 and 2004, the U.S.-based corporation sent $1.7 million to continue the massacre of untold numbers of workers and organizers. In just the first 10 months of 2000, the AUC conducted more than 800 assassinations and committed massacres of at least 500 more workers.

According to the current Colombian attorney general, Margarita Cabello Blanco, Chiquita has used its vessels to ship thousands of guns and millions of rounds of ammunition to the death squads since the mid-1990s. 

‘A revolution might be brewing’

The majority of incidents of recent violence has been directed at Indigenous populations, continuing a long pattern of widespread ethnic cleansing and displacement of Native South Americans that stretches back centuries.

Colombia’s rural countryside was the battleground in a subsequent class conflict from the late 1940s to 1950s known as La Violencia. The  10-year armed struggle broke out after the assassination of progressive presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. As mayor of Bogotá, he promoted social reforms that drew support from labor unionists, poor workers and peasants and young people from the public schools — as well as prisoners, for whom Gaitán advocated education and vocational programs.

Meanwhile Che Guevara, traveling through Bogotá while writing “The Motorcycle Diaries,” said of Colombia: “There is more repression of individual freedom here than in any country we’ve been to, the police patrol the streets carrying rifles and demand your papers every few minutes. A revolution  might be brewing.” 

Gaitán was expected to be elected on a wave of popular and working-class support during the 1948 presidential elections. Instead, he was shot to death by an assassin with alleged ties to the CIA through its anti-communist and anti-union campaign known as Operation Pantomime.

Prior to his electoral run, Gaitán had campaigned for the prosecution of all those involved in the 1928 Banana Massacre, in which as many as 2,000 workers on a United Fruit Company plantation were killed by the military to break an almost month-long strike. In 1984, United Fruit rebranded itself as Chiquita.

‘We kill trade unionists’

In response to La Violencia, rural militants formed the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia  (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). FARC is a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement that seeks to protect the rural poor and oppressed from state repression while struggling for socialist revolution. In the decades that followed, a class war raged between these social justice fighters on one side, and U.S. imperialism and its profit-generating corporations like Chiquita on the other. 

Over a quarter of a million people were killed between 1958 and 2013. For much of this period it was illegal in Colombia to operate privately-owned armies. But in 1994, the Ministry of Defense announced Decree 356, loosening restrictions for plantation owners and corporations to protect their profit-generating capital by allowing them to hire and arm paramilitary groups.

Shortly thereafter, a number of these right-wing paramilitary groups that operated more covertly in the 1980s re-organized as the AUC. It was headed by Carlos Castaño, the son of right-wing banana plantation owner Jesús Castaño, who was kidnapped by FARC and died in captivity in 1981.

The younger Castaño, himself eliminated by FARC in 2004, had a blunt description of the AUC’s mission: “We kill trade unionists because they interfere with people working.” At its height, it became the largest right-wing paramilitary organization in the Western hemisphere. (Al Jazeera, June 5, 2003)

Genocide from Gaza to Bogotá

The AUC didn’t just receive funding and weaponry from the U.S. and Chiquita. Israeli settlers traveled to Colombia to train AUC gunmen. Fifty of the AUC’s most effective assassins were sent to Israel on “scholarship” to train with the Israeli military. In May 2002, an Israeli defense contractor based in Guatemala bought 3,000 assault rifles and millions more rounds of ammunition for the AUC.

Carlos Castaño was personally trained by the Israeli military. “I learned an infinite amount of things in Israel, and to that country I owe part of my essence, my human and military achievements.” (The New Arab, May 21) 

From the equipment, the funding, down to the very tactics, the footprint of U.S. imperialism can be found everywhere from Gaza to Bogotá, operating if not directly then through its proxies in the Colombian and Israeli militaries and privately-leased death squads.

“I copied the concept of paramilitary forces from the Israelis,” Castaño once bragged,” in his ghostwritten autobiography, “Mi Confesion.”

Chiquita, for its part, responded to the $38 million settlement by claiming the victims’ families have “no legal basis” for demanding reparations. The corporation announced its plan to appeal the jury’s verdict.

While the Colombian military and police remain the persistent threat to worker organizing, the current government of Gustavo Petro has a progressive focus and has already succeeded in raising the average wages of banana workers to over $400 a month. Petro’s government has also launched an embargo on coal to Israel and severed diplomatic relations with the genocide regime occupying Palestine.

“If Palestine dies, humanity dies, and we are not going to let it die,” the 64-year old economist and former guerrilla fighter said at a May Day rally in Bogota, Colombia.  (The Guardian, May 1)   “The genocide in Palestine continues because it is inconvenient for the world power to end it.” 

Petro warned those at the U.N. COP28 climate summit in Dubai: “Genocide and barbaric acts unleashed against the Palestinian people is what awaits those who are fleeing the south because of the climate crisis. What we see in Gaza is the rehearsal of the future.” (aa.com.tr, Dec. 2, 2023)

Teddie Kelly

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Teddie Kelly
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