What do Osama bin Laden and Chiquita bananas have in common? Both have used their millions to finance terrorism.
The Justice Department has just fined Chiquita Brands International $25 million for funding a terrorist organization ... for years. Chiquita must also cooperate fully with ongoing investigations into its payments to the ultra-right-wing Colombian paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia. Chiquita made almost monthly payments to the AUC from 1997 to 2004, totaling at least $1.7 million.
The AUC is a brutal paramilitary umbrella group, with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 armed troops. It was named a terrorist organization by the United States on Sept. 10, 2001. Among its standard tactics are kidnapping, torture, disappearance, rape, murder, beatings, extortion and drug trafficking.
Chiquita claims it had to make the payments under threat from the AUC in order to protect its employees and property. Chiquita's outside lawyers implored them to stop the illegal payments, to no avail. The payments were made by check through Chiquita's Colombian subsidiary, Banadex. When Chiquita executives figured out how illegal the payments were, they started delivering them in cash. Chiquita sold Banadex in June 2004 when the heat got too intense.
While the AUC was collecting U.S. dinero from Chiquita, it was butchering thousands of innocent people in rural Colombia. Chengue (pronounced CHEN-gay) was a small farming village in the state of Sucre. About 80 AUC paramilitaries came into the town in the early hours of Jan. 17, 2001. They rounded up the men and smashed their skulls with stones and a sledgehammer, killing 24 of them. One 19-year-old perpetrator confessed, naming the organizers of the mass murder, including police and navy officials. To date, he is the only one who has been punished. This is just one of hundreds of massacres carried out by AUC.
Chiquita has had a long history of criminal behavior. It was the subject of an extraordinary exposé in its hometown paper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, in 1998. The paper found that Chiquita exposed entire communities to dangerous U.S.-banned pesticides, forced the eviction of an entire Honduran village at gunpoint and its subsequent bulldozing, suppressed unions, unwittingly allowed the use of Chiquita transport ships to move cocaine internationally, and paid a fortune to U.S. politicians to influence trade policy. The lead reporter, Mike Gallagher, illegally accessed more than 2,000 Chiquita voice mails. The voice mails backed up his story, but his methods got him fired. The Enquirer issued a front-page apology and paid Chiquita a reported $14 million. The voice-mail scandal rocked the Enquirer, burying the important exposé.
Chiquita was formerly called the United Fruit Company, which with the help of its former lawyer, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and his brother Allen Dulles' Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, in 1954. And you can go back further. Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez wrote in his classic "One Hundred Years of Solitude about the 1928 Santa Marta massacre of striking United Fruit banana workers: "When the banana company arrived ... the old policemen were replaced by hired assassins."
While the United States is seeking extradition of Colombia-based Chiquita executives, the administration of President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, with its own officials now linked to the right-wing paramilitaries, has countered that Colombia would seek the extradition of U.S.-based Chiquita executives. Colombian prosecutors are also seeking information in Chiquita's role in smuggling 3,000 AK-47 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to paramilitaries in November 2001.
A $25 million fine to a multibillion-dollar corporation like Chiquita is a slap on the wrist, the cost of doing business. Presidents like George Bush and Uribe, businessmen first, while squabbling over extraditions, would never lose track of their overarching shared goal of a stridently pro-corporate, military-supported so-called free-trade regime. As long as that remains the same, union organizers and hard-working farmers, like the men of Chengue, will continue to be killed on behalf of Chiquita or some other multinational company.
That next organic, fair-trade banana you buy just might save a life.
Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 500 stations in North America.