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    Banana group Chiquita liable in death of eight men, ordered to pay $38.3 million

    By Barnini Chakraborty,

    2024-06-11

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    A Florida jury ruled Monday that Chiquita Brands International , the banana conglomerate, is liable for financing a paramilitary group in Colombia that killed eight men, and it has been ordered to pay the families $38.3 million in restitution.

    The group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia , was designated by the United States at the time of the killings as a terrorist organization.

    Chiquita, the multinational fruit corporation headquartered in Florida, was found to be responsible for the wrongful deaths of the eight men killed by the AUC. The men had different jobs, ranging from trade unionists to banana workers.

    “We’re very happy about the jury’s verdict, but you can’t escape that we’re talking about horrific abuses,” Marco Simons, a lawyer for EarthRights International, an environmental and human rights group, who represented one family in the legal claim, said.

    The case was brought by the families after Chiquita pleaded guilty in 2007 to making payments to the AUC, which has been accused of widespread human rights abuses in Colombia.

    At that trial, Chiquita said it made $1.7 million in payments to the AUC between 1997 and 2004. The company said it did so after the AUC leader at the time threatened that Chiquita's staff and property would be harmed or destroyed if the company did not pay up.

    Company lawyers argued the banana company had to pay in order to ensure the safety of its staff and property. Plaintiffs countered that the company was in cahoots with the AUC and that the money was for expanding its footprint in a region that was run by the AUC. Regular payments by Chiquita to the AUC took place even after AUC was designated in 2001 as a terrorist organization.

    Chiquita has faced hundreds of similar lawsuits in U.S. courts filed on behalf of the families of other victims of violence at the hands of the AUC, but Monday's verdict is the first time the company has been found liable. The landmark decision could influence other suits.

    "Our clients risked their lives to come forward to hold Chiquita to account, putting their faith in the United States justice system," Agnieszka Fryszman, another attorney on the Florida case, said.

    Chiquita said it would appeal.

    “The situation in Colombia was tragic for so many,” the company said in a statement after the verdict. “However, that does not change our belief that there is no legal basis for these claims.”

    Following the verdict, human rights groups in Colombia celebrated the win.

    Gerardo Vega, the former director of Colombia’s National Land Agency, which is responsible for returning land to people who were displaced by force, said in a video statement that the ruling was a vindication of the fight against impunity in the U.S.

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    “The Colombian justice system should also act,” he said. “We need Colombian judges to convict the businesspeople who, just like Chiquita, were paying” paramilitary groups.

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