Wanted: Chiquita's Murderous Executives

US news program 60 Minutes had a great piece last night on how poor trade policies plus human rights abuses can equal detrimental effects. Chiquita Brands International, the largest distributor of bananas in the United States, was fined $25 million as part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department for having ties to Colombian paramilitary groups.

From 60 Minutes:

But since the 1980's, the business of bananas there has been punctuated with gunfire. First, the area was taken over by Marxist guerillas called the "FARC," whose ruthlessness at killing and kidnapping was exceeded only by the private paramilitary army that rose up to fight them. Chiquita found itself trying to grow bananas in the middle of a war, in which the Colombian government and its army were of no help.

"These lands were lands where there was no law. It was impossible for the government to protect employees," says Fernando Aguirre, who became Chiquita's CEO long after all this happened.

Aguirre says the company was forced to pay taxes to the guerillas when they controlled the territory in the late 1980s and early 90s. When the paramilitaries, known as the "AUC," moved in in 1997 they demanded the same thing.

"Did the paramilitaries state, specifically to you, that if you didn't make the payments, your people would be killed?" Kroft asks.

"There was a very, very strong signal that if the company would not make payments, that things would happen. And since they had already killed at least 50 people, employees of the company, it was clear to everyone there that these guys meant business," Aguirre says.

Chiquita only had a couple of options and none of them were particularly good. It could refuse to pay the paramilitaries and run the risk that its employees could be killed or kidnapped, it could pack up and leave the country all together and abandon its most profitable enterprise, or it could stay and pay protection, and in the process, help finance the atrocities that were being committed all across the countryside.

Chiquita did have another choice. When the US government declared the paramilitary a terrorist group in 2001, the company continued to make payments for another two years. To his credit, when Aguirre became CEO, he did stop payments, sold its subsidiary in Colombia and agreed to pay a $25 million fine. But that wasn’t enough. You mean to tell me that Chiquita was totally in the dark that the paramilitary was using the payments to purchase weapons to kill innocent people?

"What did the company think this money was gonna be used for?" Kroft asks.

"Well, clearly to save lives," Aguirre says.

"The lives of your employees?" Kroft asks.

"Absolutely," Aguirre says.

Thankfully, US Rep. William Delahunt made it clear in the piece that, unfortunately, Chiquita isn’t the only U.S. company involved in shady business overseas.

Asked what he means by that, Delahunt tells Kroft, "Well, I think that there are other American companies that have conducted themselves the same way that Chiquita has, except they haven't been caught."

How many companies?

"Well, there are several," Delahunt says.

Delahunt says he doesn't want to share more information "because I want to give those companies an opportunity to come before the committee."

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