NEW YORK – Victims of Colombia's bloody civil conflict sued U.S. banana importer Chiquita Brands International on Wednesday for making payments to a paramilitary umbrella group blamed for thousands of killings.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, accuses the company of complicity in hundreds of deaths because of its financial support of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, also known by its Spanish initials, AUC.
The plaintiffs include relatives of 387 people believed to have been killed by the right-wing group, which was responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia's long-running conflict. It was designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government in 2001.
The families are seeking $7.86 billion in damages under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts for alleged human rights abuses abroad. The lawsuit accuses Chiquita of abetting atrocities including terrorism, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A spokesman for the Cincinnati-based company vowed Wednesday that it would fight the civil lawsuit, one of several filed recently by Colombian citizens and human rights groups.
Chiquita has acknowledged that its former subsidiary, Banadex, made $1.7 million in payments to the AUC between 1997 and 2004. The company has also admitted that the payments were illegal; it pleaded guilty this year to violating U.S. counterterrorism laws and agreed to pay a $25 million fine.
But Chiquita has repeatedly insisted that it had no choice but to pay protection money to groups that had threatened to turn death squads loose on its banana plantations and employees.
"We reiterate that Chiquita and its employees were victims and that the actions taken by the company were always motivated to protect the lives of our employees and their families," said Chiquita spokesman Michael Mitchell.
The New York-based lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of the families, Jonathan Reiter, said Chiquita's support of the AUC went beyond mere "protection payments" and included the shipment of thousands of rifles through a Banadex port facility.
Chiquita sold its Colombian subsidiary in 2004 but continues to buy Colombian bananas from independent suppliers.
The company's punishment for giving money to AUC outraged some Colombian officials, as has a Justice Department decision not to prosecute 10 Chiquita executives.
Colombia's interior minister, Carlos Holguin, said the fine was insufficient for a company that had "financed a mass massacre of Colombians."
Chiquita has also acknowledged making protection payments to other combatants, including the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.