Guest Post by Paul Wolf:
Judge Kenneth Marra’s recent ruling in a mass tort case against Chiquita Brands provides a roadmap for holding American corporations responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed overseas. It is one of the most detailed judicial opinions ever written in any U.S. human rights case.
The case arose from Chiquita’s admitted payments of millions of dollars to the warring factions in Colombia’s decades-old civil war: the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC (paramilitaries), and FARC. In March of 2007, Chiquita pled guilty to engaging in financial transactions with foreign terrorist organizations. Represented by now-Attorney General Eric Holder, the $4 billion dollar company cut what looked like a pretty good deal: admit their guilt, pay a $25 million dollar fine over a period of five years, and no individuals will be prosecuted.
There was only one small problem. By admitting its guilt in a criminal proceeding, the company set itself up for an endless number of lawsuits, brought by the families of thousands of individuals slain by these groups during the years they were in Chiquita’s pay.
The banana-growing region of Uraba was the birthplace of paramilitarism in Colombia, as an outgrowth of the Colombian government’s program to organize private militia groups, called convivires, to assist the Colombian military—and do its dirty work. Originally dealing directly with AUC Commander Carlos Castaño, Chiquita Brands then helped to organize a system of convivires, which were really just front organizations of the AUC. The Colombian army also directly assisted the AUC in many of its operations, and most importantly, supplied the AUC with lists of names of guerrilla sympathizers to kill. The victims’ claims are bolstered by allegations that several shipments of arms passed through Chiquita’s port facilities, including thousands of AK-47 assault rifles delivered to the AUC.
Judge Marra held that just proving Chiquita’s support of the AUC would not be enough. Although they don’t have to prove that Chiquita specifically intended that the AUC torture or kill the specific individuals in this case, or even knew their identities, they must show, in a general way at least, that Chiquita intended the AUC to torture and kill civilians in Colombia’s banana-growing regions. According to Judge Marra, this reduces to the allegation that Chiquita “took a side” in the conflict.
What comes next is a lengthy process of sorting through the cases and bringing them to trial, one by one. These include scores of people butchered with chainsaws and machetes, or with battery acid poured down their throat, young children killed, gang rapes, villages burned to the ground, and more. The individual stories are beyond what most of us can even imagine. We can’t imagine these kinds of things actually occur in remote areas of the world, but they do. And they are, apparently, just the cost of doing business, as far as some people are concerned.
Paul Wolf is a human rights and international lawyer based in Washington, D.C., who represents most of the plaintiffs in the mass tort case, In re Chiquita Brands International.