Chiquita ordered to pay families victimized in Colombia Civil War

Bunches of Chiquita bananas on display, showcasing the brand's iconic blue sticker. (Photo by Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images)

A federal jury in Florida has ordered Chiquita Brands International to pay $38.3 million to 16 family members of people killed during Colombia's long civil war. The jury found that Chiquita funded a violent right-wing paramilitary group responsible for the deaths.

This ruling, delivered by a West Palm Beach jury on Monday, is the first time Chiquita has been found liable in numerous similar lawsuits pending in U.S. courts, the Associated Press reported.

 It also marks a rare instance where a private U.S. company has been held accountable for human rights abuses abroad.

Why did Chiquita fund paramilitary groups?

According to court documents, Chiquita paid the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) about $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004. 

The AUC, a paramilitary group, is blamed for thousands of deaths during those years. Chiquita claims its subsidiary, Banadex, made these payments under duress to protect its employees and operations from harm.

Marco Simons, General Counsel for EarthRights International, praised the verdict. 

"This sends a powerful message to corporations everywhere: profiting from human rights abuses will not go unpunished. These families, victimized by armed groups and corporations, asserted their power and prevailed in the judicial process," he said. 

Chiquita’s response to the verdict

Chiquita, whose banana operations are based in Florida, expressed disappointment with the verdict but maintained there was no legal basis for the claims. "The situation in Colombia was tragic for so many. However, that does not change our belief that there is no legal basis for these claims," the company said in a statement.

Colombian president reacts

Colombian President Gustavo Petro questioned why the U.S. justice system ruled against Chiquita, while Colombian judges have not. 

"The 2016 peace deal calls for a tribunal to disclose judicial truths. Why don’t we have one?" Petro posted on social media.

The AUC, a right-wing paramilitary group, was initially formed to protect landowners from leftist rebels but became notorious for human rights violations and drug trafficking. In 2001, the U.S. State Department designated the AUC as a foreign terrorist organization.

The verdict follows a six-week trial and two days of deliberations. The lawsuit, initially filed in July 2007, was combined with several others. Agnieszka Fryszman, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, stated, "The verdict does not bring back the husbands and sons who were killed, but it sets the record straight and places accountability for funding terrorism where it belongs: at Chiquita’s doorstep."

Previous legal actions against Chiquita

In 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty to a U.S. criminal charge of engaging in transactions with a foreign terrorist organization and paid a $25 million fine. As part of the agreement with the Justice Department, the company also implemented a compliance and ethics program.

This landmark ruling could pave the way for other victims to seek compensation from Chiquita and other companies involved in human rights abuses. If pending cases are not resolved through negotiation, another trial is scheduled for July 14.

Chiquita has announced plans to appeal the ruling. A spokesperson stated, "While we are disappointed by the decision, we remain confident that our legal position will ultimately prevail."

This case underscores the potential for corporate accountability in international human rights violations, setting a precedent for future legal actions against companies implicated in similar abuses.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. It was reported from Los Angeles.