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Why banana brand Chiquita was found liable for deaths in the Colombia's Civil War

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

This week, a federal jury in Florida found fruit giant Chiquita Brands liable for deaths during Colombia's civil war. They ordered the company to pay the families of eight men over $38 million. The company admitted to paying a far-right paramilitary group that committed the killings. But they said they had to pay the group, known by its Spanish acronym AUC, in order to protect workers. Chiquita has faced other lawsuits related to their actions in Colombia, but this is the first time they've been found culpable. Jorge Valencia is a freelance journalist based in Colombia who's been following the case from Cartagena. Jorge, thank you so much for joining us.

JORGE VALENCIA: Hi, good morning. Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: So first, let's start with some background. Colombia had a decadeslong civil war. What part did this group, the AUC, play in it?

VALENCIA: They were a conglomeration of various self-defense groups that were organized by some legal actors, like farm owners or like cattle ranchers and some illegal actors, drug traffickers. And so they were groups that were created to protect themselves from armed military guerrillas who would attack them, would kidnap their family members. And so they became a lot more violent and a lot more gruesome than the groups that they were created to protect, supposedly, people from.

KURTZLEBEN: Those groups that they were protecting against, those are groups like FARC that people might have heard of, right?

VALENCIA: Correct.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

VALENCIA: FARC, which demobilized in 2016, and the ELN, which is currently in peace negotiations with the Colombian government.

KURTZLEBEN: How did Chiquita get involved with this paramilitary group?

VALENCIA: Well, Chiquita made payments of at least $1.7 million over the course of seven years to the AUCs. This is something that they have admitted to the U.S. Department of Justice, and it was something that they had to pay a fine to the U.S. government in 2007. They paid $25 million. And so the question in this trial was about the motivation behind these payments. The family members said that the AUCs would intimidate any type of workers unions in the region, and also would displace people, which would allow Chiquita Brands to expand their operations by buying lands at depressed values. Now, Chiquita's lawyers say that Chiquita was actually another victim in this wide conflict in Colombia, that the AUCs were extorting their executives in Colombia and that these payments were simply a form of guaranteeing the safety of their employees in the region.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, that brings us to this case that we're talking about today. How did these victims' families say that Chiquita's relationship with the AUC resulted in the deaths of these men? What happened here?

VALENCIA: Well, they say that they were bankrolling this group and that this group murdered their family members. None of the lawyers who were involved in the case would go into the details of those cases because they said that just by coming forward in this trial, these family members were taking great risk because some of these armed actors who were involved in these cases are still at large and may go after the families if they hear their cases in mediate reports, and also, because this is a very large sum of money that they were awarded. And so they're concerned that they're going to become targets. However, these eight cases are only eight out of thousands that were perpetrated by the paramiltaries in Colombia.

KURTZLEBEN: I wonder if you could give us some perspective here because we've talked about this is the first time Chiquita has been found liable for deaths like this, and they've been ordered to pay $38.3 million to the victims' families. Can you tell us how big of a deal is this, both monetarily and just the fact of this decision?

VALENCIA: This is a very unusual decision for a few reasons. Just in the history of armed conflict in Colombia, this is the first time that victims - that survivors of this violence - are being compensated for their losses. Second, internationally, it is very unusual for a private corporation to be held accountable to victims and survivors of violence in regions where the company's operated, where there was widespread violence and social unrest. And lastly, in the United States, that is also very unusual, for a private corporation to be held accountable for their involvement in regions outside of the United States. There are many legal hurdles that a case like this has to overcome. And something that illustrates that is that this trial was 17 years in the making. The very first filing was made in 2007, and it wasn't until this year that it finally got a full trial in court.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, you mentioned there are, I think you said, thousands of other cases. What kind of impact could this verdict have on those other cases?

VALENCIA: This is very likely going to impact those cases because the facts in most of these cases are very similar. Here in Colombia, officially, it won't have any consequences, but there has been a lot of response to this ruling here. And a lot of people hope that at the very least, it's going to have symbolic consequences because the justice system here in Colombia has not been able to hold companies to account for making these kinds of payments, because this wasn't just Chiquita. There were other multinational corporations operating in that region, like Dole. There were Colombian banana companies operating in that region. And there were companies in other sectors that had also paid the paramiltaries. And yet here in Colombia, the justice system hasn't been able to hold these private actors to account. So a lot of the response here in Colombia this week was that, judicial system, please take action. If they can do it in the United States, why can't we do it here?

KURTZLEBEN: That was Jorge Valencia, freelance reporter in Colombia. He reported on this case for The New York Times. Jorge, thank you so much for speaking with us.

VALENCIA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.