Chiquita Republic

United Fruit’s heir has again been linked to paramilitary abuses in Colombia.

James Bargent

A stand of plantain trees in northern Colombia, where returning refugees say they are being displaced by a paramilitary-backed banana ‘invasion.’

In the late 1990s, in one of many chap­ters in the Colom­bian government’s decades-old dirty war with left­ist guer­ril­las, more than 15,000 peo­ple in the north­ern region of Cur­varadó were forced from their land. First came the army, they recall. And they told us to leave. Don’t be afraid of us,’ the sol­diers said. Be afraid of those that fol­low us.’

Residents involved in land restitution say that they live with constant threats, and that abduction, torture and murder remain common fates. Death lists are widely circulated.

Those that fol­lowed were las mocha cabezas—the behead­ers — para­mil­i­tary death squads fight­ing as the military’s prox­ies. Thou­sands fled their mas­sacres, bom­bard­ments and executions.

Behind the behead­ers came the agribusi­ness­es, which con­vert­ed the ter­ri­to­ry into African palm plan­ta­tions and cat­tle ranch­es under para­mil­i­tary pro­tec­tion. The cozy rela­tion­ship between the cor­po­ra­tions and para­mil­i­taries became known as the para-economy.

Fif­teen years lat­er, the dis­placed peo­ple who have returned to Cur­varadó say they are again engaged in a land strug­gle with a para-econ­o­my. But the busi­ness­es encroach­ing on their land are no longer palm and cat­tle ranch­ers, but rather plain­tain farms run through proxy grow­ers, most­ly at the direc­tion of a Colom­bia-based, mul­ti-nation­al banana com­pa­ny called Bana­col. How­ev­er, the returnees refer to the com­pa­ny by a more famil­iar name: We call it Chiq­ui­ta Brands,” says Ger­mán, a leader of the resti­tu­tion fight.

Else­where in Colom­bia, the name Chiq­ui­ta has long been long syn­ony­mous with the para-econ­o­my. The Char­lotte, N.C.-based agribusi­ness is the lat­est incar­na­tion of Unit­ed Fruit, the out­fit that put the banana” in banana repub­lic” with huge­ly exploita­tive prac­tices in coun­tries such as Hon­duras at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry. But Chiquita’s med­dling has con­tin­ued into the 21st. In 2003, rev­e­la­tions emerged that for years Chiq­ui­ta had been mak­ing pay­ments to the para­mil­i­taries of the Unit­ed Self-Defense Forces of Colom­bia (AUC) — and before that, to the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia (FARC) — in order to oper­ate in Urabá, a region north of Cur­varadó. The Jus­tice Depart­ment opened an inves­ti­ga­tion into Chiquita’s AUC ties, and in 2007 the com­pa­ny plead­ed guilty but, claim­ing to be a vic­tim of extor­tion, received only a $25 mil­lion fine. Banana work­ers and for­mer para­mil­i­tary com­bat­ants tell anoth­er sto­ry, how­ev­er — of a coop­er­a­tive arrange­ment with Chiq­ui­ta in which para­mil­i­taries rou­tine­ly beat, tor­tured and exe­cut­ed work­ers iden­ti­fied as trou­ble­mak­ers or guer­ril­la sympathizers.

As the scan­dal broke, Chiq­ui­ta dis­tanced itself from its Colom­bian oper­a­tions, sell­ing off its Colom­bian sub­sidiary, Banadex, which had pro­vid­ed the com­pa­ny with approx­i­mate­ly 11 mil­lion crates of bananas every year. The com­pa­ny also part­nered with Rain­for­est Alliance, which cer­ti­fied that all of Chiquita’s farms had fair health, labor and envi­ron­men­tal practices.

But the res­i­dents of Cur­varadó have excel­lent rea­son to believe that Chiq­ui­ta kept a foothold in Colom­bia under a dif­fer­ent name. In 2011, Bana­col was Chiquita’s largest glob­al sup­pli­er, account­ing for 10 per­cent of Chiquita’s banana pur­chas­es, accord­ing to Chiquita’s annu­al state­ment to share­hold­ers. The rela­tion­ship dates back to the 2004 sale of Banadex, which was bought by Inves­mar, the British Vir­gin Islands-reg­is­tered con­glom­er­ate that is the hold­ing com­pa­ny of Bana­col. The $51.5 mil­lion deal includ­ed an agree­ment that Bana­col would sup­ply Chiq­ui­ta with 11 mil­lion crates of bananas every year through 2012.

The ties between Chiq­ui­ta and Bana­col do not end there, accord­ing to a legal com­plaint filed in a U.S. court against Chiq­ui­ta in March 2011 on behalf of vic­tims of the AUC. The com­plaint claims that the for­mer Banadex man­age­ment now runs Bana­col, that work­ers con­tin­ued under Banadex con­tracts as late as 2009 and that the farms sold to Bana­col — which make up over 70 per­cent of Banacol’s Colom­bian land — con­tin­ue to sup­ply Chiq­ui­ta. Bana­col has act­ed as [Chiquita’s] alter ego since 2004,” the com­plaint concludes.

Chiq­ui­ta Brands declined to com­ment on the nature of its rela­tion­ship with Bana­col for this arti­cle. Bana­col sent a writ­ten state­ment to In These Times, which said it was total­ly false” that Bana­col was the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Chiq­ui­ta in Colom­bia.” How­ev­er, it did not respond to ques­tions about whether the for­mer Banadex man­age­ment works for Bana­col and whether for­mer Chiq­ui­ta farms con­tin­ue to sup­ply Chiquita.

Rain­for­est Alliance con­firmed to In These Times that it cer­ti­fies Chiq­ui­ta sup­pli­ers as envi­ron­men­tal­ly and social­ly respon­si­ble, and that it cer­ti­fies Bana­col farms in the Urabá region, where Chiq­ui­ta was once enmeshed in the para-econ­o­my. How­ev­er, the Rain­for­est Alliance says it does not cer­ti­fy Bana­col farms in the Cur­varadó region, where the new accu­sa­tions of a Chiq­ui­ta-Bana­col para-econ­o­my have arisen.

Sown with blood

When the dis­placed com­mu­ni­ties first began to return to Cur­varadó in 2002, they found a desert of African-palm plan­ta­tions and cat­tle ranch­es in place of the small farms that once dot­ted their land, most of which had been col­lec­tive­ly owned Afro-Colom­bian ter­ri­to­ries. When we saw it, we said, This palm and these ranch­es are sown and fer­til­ized with the blood of our loved ones,’ ” says Germán.

The busi­ness­es made no secret of their para­mil­i­tary back­ing, so the returnees sought pro­tec­tion by estab­lish­ing Human­i­tar­i­an Zones: com­mu­ni­ties legal­ly rec­og­nized as neu­tral zones, which pro­hib­it the entry of all armed groups, legal or ille­gal. We want a peace­ful ter­ri­to­ry to work like we did before,” said Enrique Petro, on whose land the first zone was built. We don’t want vio­lence – that is why we live in the Human­i­tar­i­an Zones.”

The Human­i­tar­i­an Zones were lat­er com­ple­ment­ed by Bio­di­ver­si­ty Zones,” col­lec­tive­ly owned ter­ri­to­ries divid­ed into areas for con­ser­va­tion, sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture and tem­po­rary recu­per­a­tion from the agribusi­ness invasion.

Since return­ing, the com­mu­ni­ties have been involved in a legal strug­gle for the resti­tu­tion of their lands. The gov­ern­ment land reg­istry office has so far iden­ti­fied more than 61,000 acres ille­gal­ly usurped by the cat­tle ranch­ers and palm com­pa­nies, and the cen­sus to deter­mine who can claim the land is now in its final stage.

Most of the palm crops are now dead — killed by a mys­te­ri­ous fun­gal plague — and a num­ber of the busi­ness­men involved in col­lud­ing with the para­mil­i­taries are in prison, under inves­ti­ga­tion or on the run. How­ev­er, as the palm trees have with­ered, the banana com­pa­nies have advanced.

In 2009, Bana­col announced plans for a gov­ern­ment-backed $6.4 mil­lion project plant­i­ng 2,470 acres of plan­tain in Cur­varadó for sale on inter­na­tion­al mar­kets. The project stalled after the Human­i­tar­i­an Zone com­mu­ni­ties com­plained to the author­i­ties that they had not con­sent­ed to the project — a con­sti­tu­tion­al right for Afro-Colom­bian com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing in col­lec­tive ter­ri­to­ries. It also fell afoul of restric­tions on land use put in place by the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court, which banned the devel­op­ment of com­mer­cial projects on the land while the resti­tu­tion process is in progress.

How­ev­er, a year lat­er, more than 700 acres of land in Bio­di­ver­si­ty Zones had been tak­en over by peo­ple claim­ing to be grow­ing plan­tain for Bana­col, accord­ing to pub­lic com­plaints by the Low­er Coun­cils of Cur­varadó and the Human­i­tar­i­an Zones.

When mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty con­front­ed the invaders,” they found poor, unem­ployed and dis­placed peo­ple from out­side the area who said they had answered adver­tise­ments promis­ing land, seeds, fer­til­iz­ers, start-up mon­ey and a guar­an­tee that Bana­col would pur­chase what they grew. The com­mu­ni­ties have report­ed see­ing Bana­col rep­re­sen­ta­tives meet­ing with the farm­ers and inspect­ing the sites.

In its state­ment to In These Times, Bana­col said it was pro­vid­ing start-up equip­ment, tech­ni­cal exper­tise and access to inter­na­tion­al mar­kets for Afro- Colom­bian fam­i­lies from the com­mu­ni­ties [and] with roots in the zone” as part of a project to gen­er­ate work oppor­tu­ni­ties and devel­op­ment” for the region’s Afro-Colom­bian population.

The state­ment did not men­tion a pro­hi­bi­tion on new devel­op­ment projects by the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court, which ruled: Such trans­ac­tions are to be con­sid­ered illegal.”

Bana­col added that it had been invit­ed into the region by the Cur­vara­do‘ Upper Coun­cil. How­ev­er, the Upper Coun­cil and its leader, Ger­mán Mar­mole­jo, were cut out of the process by the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court in 2010 due to elec­toral irregularities. 

The com­mu­ni­ties and their sup­port­ers believe he was brought to Cur­vara­do and elect­ed for his will­ing­ness to sup­port para­mil­i­tary-backed busi­ness­es. He was spon­sored by the busi­ness­es, among them Bana­col,” said Emilio Peña from the Inter-Eccle­si­as­ti­cal Com­mis­sion for Jus­tice and Peace — a human rights NGO that has accom­pa­nied the com­mu­ni­ties since they returned to the zone.

Con­fi­dent the Bana­col-backed invaders” had no legal claim to the land, the com­mu­ni­ties denounced the occu­pa­tions to the local police and the mayor’s office but received no response. They then took the case to the nation­al author­i­ties, and after a lengthy strug­gle, man­aged to secure an evic­tion notice for one of the inva­sions believed to be grow­ing plan­tain for Banacol.

The police and army removed a num­ber of the invaders” from the occu­pied lands in June of 2011 and tore down their shacks. With­in days, how­ev­er, the squat­ters began to return, some claim­ing offi­cial support.

We count on the sup­port of the busi­ness­men, and the police said that we could return after they tear down the huts, to con­tin­ue har­vest­ing and look­ing after the crops,” said one, quot­ed in a report by the Inter-Eccle­si­as­ti­cal Com­mis­sion for Jus­tice and Peace.

Six months lat­er, say com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, they decid­ed to take mat­ters into their own hands and cut down the invaders’ crops. In response, they say, the invaders fought back with machetes, clubs and rocks. They called both the police and the army but received no response, despite the pres­ence of an army check­point a mere 10 min­utes’ walk from the zone. After 45 min­utes, the army final­ly arrived — when they cal­cu­lat­ed that they had already killed us,” says Jose­fi­na, whose fam­i­ly man­aged the occu­pied Bio­di­ver­si­ty Zone.

Land rights and death lists

As the farms con­tin­ue to expand, the invaders” not only claim the back­ing of the Upper Coun­cil, the police and Bana­col, but also of the para­mil­i­taries, who con­tin­ue to oper­ate in the zone under a new name — Águilas Negras (Black Eagles). Evi­dence col­lect­ed for Jus­tice and Peace’s reg­u­lar reports on the region sug­gests that Águilas Negras has over­seen Banacol’s land grab. At the begin­ning of the process, accord­ing to Jus­tice and Peace wit­ness­es, known para­mil­i­taries called a meet­ing to orga­nize the par­ti­tion of the lands, announc­ing that those who occu­pied plots would have the back­ing of Bana­col and the chance to legal­ize their own­er­ship or sell the land. You have to strug­gle for the land, you have to want it,” a local para­mil­i­tary known as El Llan­ta” (the Tire) told the crowd.

The reports also describe the para­mil­i­taries patrolling the occu­pied farms and even super­vis­ing as farm­ers load box­es of Bana­col plan­tains onto boats. The Human­i­tar­i­an Zone res­i­dents are con­vinced the com­pa­ny con­tin­ues pay­ing the para­mil­i­taries for their pro­tec­tion. “[Bana­col] pay them the vac­cine’ [pro­tec­tion mon­ey] so they stay in the ter­ri­to­ries defend­ing their eco­nom­ic inter­ests,” says Germán.

Com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers and res­i­dents involved in land resti­tu­tion say that they live with con­stant threats, and that abduc­tion, tor­ture and mur­der remain com­mon fates. Death lists are wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed. On them appear the names of those who have pub­licly denounced Bana­col and the invaders.

Some­times the threats are deliv­ered per­son­al­ly. Jose­fi­na says that after she and her fam­i­ly trav­eled to Bogotá to file a com­plaint with the gov­ern­ment about the inva­sion, a mem­ber of the local para­mil­i­taries told her broth­er, Keep qui­et or some­thing will hap­pen.” He now can­not leave the area around where he lives unac­com­pa­nied. How­ev­er, he remains defi­ant. This is the strug­gle, and the strug­gle is not easy,” he said.

Alle­ga­tions of Banacol’s ties to the para­mil­i­taries date back to the same deal Chiq­ui­ta struck with the AUC in the mid-nineties. How­ev­er, while Chiquita’s pay­ments to the AUC end­ed with the 2003 scan­dal, Bana­col con­tin­ued pay­ing secu­ri­ty com­pa­nies that were used to laun­der pay­ments to the para­mil­i­taries until at least 2007, accord­ing to details from a Colom­bia Pros­e­cu­tors Office inves­ti­ga­tion of Chiq­ui­ta, Banadex and Bana­col, which was leaked to the press in 2009.

In its state­ment to In These Times, Bana­col did not respond to ques­tions about the recent alle­ga­tions of para­mil­i­tary col­lu­sion, but in the past it has firm­ly denied any links.

2007 state­ment signed by Bana­col and two oth­er com­pa­nies said, Our pol­i­cy toward ille­gal orga­ni­za­tions such as guer­ril­las, self-defense groups and com­mon crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions has been one of not suc­cumb­ing to their demands…. We act­ed with­in legal norms.”

In March of 2012, pros­e­cu­tors in Colom­bia closed the inves­ti­ga­tion into the past crimes of Chiq­ui­ta, Banadex and Bana­col. They accept­ed that the three cor­po­ra­tions act­ed in good faith in pay­ing the para­mil­i­tary-front secu­ri­ty com­pa­nies, as well as the cor­po­ra­tions’s claims they were vic­tims of extor­tion. How­ev­er, in Decem­ber the case was reopened by Colombia’s Attor­ney Gen­er­al, who said: How can it be explained that for so many years they made such high pay­ments and received noth­ing in return? The only pos­si­ble answer is that they real­ly knew where the mon­ey was going.” 

The now impris­oned para­mil­i­tary chiefs behind the deal have always main­tained the rela­tion­ship was vol­un­tary and mutu­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial. “[The banana com­pa­nies] are more respon­si­ble than us because they had only one goal, which was mon­ey,” said Ever Veloza Gar­cía, the for­mer head of the AUC’s Banana Bloc,” in a 2009 inter­view with Al Jazeera. Thou­sands mur­dered. Thou­sands orphaned, wid­owed. An area des­o­lat­ed. It was a war. A total war … They have to be put on tri­al as we are.”

For the peo­ple of the Human­i­tar­i­an Zones in Cur­varadó, that war is not yet over. The land resti­tu­tion process is now reach­ing a crit­i­cal moment and vio­lence and threats are again on the rise. Ten­sions increased ear­li­er this year when Manuel Ruiz, a land rights cam­paign­er involved in the resti­tu­tion process, was abduct­ed, tor­tured and mur­dered, along with his 15-year-old son Samir.

I believe that the vio­lence is com­ing back again — and even worse than before,” says Petro, whose land was con­vert­ed into the first Human­i­tar­i­an Zone. Petro has already sur­vived mul­ti­ple attempts on his life and seen two of his sons mur­dered by para­mil­i­taries. The moment has arrived when they are going to take away our lands.”

Since the sale of its assets to Bana­col, Chiq­ui­ta has dis­tanced itself from this war, but its prof­its con­tin­ue to be taint­ed by the para-econ­o­my alliance that is its lega­cy in Colombia.

Update: This piece has been updat­ed to include state­ments from the Rain­for­est Alliance.

James Bar­gent is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Medellin. He has report­ed on Colom­bia and Latin Amer­i­ca for the Mia­mi Her­ald, the Toron­to Star, Sky News, InSight Crime, the Times Edu­ca­tion Sup­ple­ment, Colom­bia Reports, Alter­Net, Toward Free­dom, Upside Down World and Green Left Week­ly.
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