Chiquita fails to stop Colombian lawsuits

By Kevin Gray

MIAMI (Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge rejected Friday a request by the Chiquita Brands International Inc to throw out lawsuits by thousands of Colombians over its payments to a right-wing paramilitary group during Colombia’s civil war.

Some 4,000 Colombians are seeking damages claiming they and their relatives were victims of violence by the paramilitary group AUC, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which Chiquita admitted to paying to ensure its workers’ safety.

The Chiquita banana company reached an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department in 2007 to pay a $25 million fine to settle a criminal complaint accusing it of paying the AUC more than $1.7 million from 1997 to 2004.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra allows Colombians to press ahead with claims for damages against Chiquita for crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes committed by the AUC.

The paramilitary group, which was formed to battle Colombia’s leftists rebels, is accused of carrying out massacres before it began disarming in 2003.

“The plaintiffs in this case lost family members, including sons who were banana workers or their mothers who stood up for their communities,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, a lawyer for some of the plaintiffs.

“They look forward to having their claims heard by a jury.”

Chiquita said in a statement the money it paid to the Colombian paramilitaries was “extortion payments made to protect the lives of Chiquita’s employees.

“The court’s ruling makes it clear that for these claims to succeed, plaintiffs will have to prove that Chiquita shared the murderous aims of the AUC. The plaintiffs will never be able to prove this, because it is not true,” it said.

Chiquita has acknowledged it also made payments to left-wing militias in Colombia.

Even as Colombia’s civil war raged, the company’s Colombian subsidiary was among its most profitable operations in the world.

In his ruling, Marra said Chiquita also paid the paramilitaries with the aim of keeping Colombia’s FARC rebels out of the banana-growing region where it operated.

“The complaints adequately allege Chiquita assisted the AUC not only with the intent that the AUC commit torture and killings, but for the specific purpose the AUC commit such acts in the course of its efforts to defeat the FARC,” the ruling said. (Editing by Andre Grenon)