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Banana giant Chiquita held liable by US court for funding paramilitaries

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By Vanessa BuschschlüterBBC News

Getty Images Chiquita bananas Getty Images

A court in the United States has found multinational fruit company Chiquita Brands International liable for financing a Colombian paramilitary group.

The group, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), was designated by the US as a terrorist organisation at the time.

Following a civil case brought by eight Colombian families whose relatives were killed by the AUC, Chiquita has been ordered to pay $38.3m (£30m) in damages to the families.

Chiquita said in a statement that it intended to appeal against the jury’s verdict, arguing that there was “no legal basis for the claims”.

The jury in the case, which was heard in a federal court in South Florida, found Chiquita responsible for the wrongful deaths of eight men killed by the AUC.

The AUC engaged in widespread human rights abuses in Colombia, including murdering people it suspected of links with left-wing rebels.

The victims ranged from trade unionists to banana workers.

The case was brought by the families after Chiquita pleaded guilty in 2007 to making payments to the AUC.

During the 2007 trial, it was revealed that Chiquita had made payments amounting to more than $1.7m to the AUC in the six years from 1997 to 2004.

The banana giant said that it began making the payments after the leader of the AUC at the time, Carlos Castaño, implied that staff and property belonging to Chiquita’s subsidiary in Colombia could be harmed if the money was not forthcoming.

Lawyers for Chiquita argued that the company had no choice but to pay the AUC to protect its Colombian employees from violence.

But the plaintiffs argued that the company formed “an unholy alliance with the AUC” at a time when Chiquita was expanding its presence in regions controlled by the AUC.

The regular payments continued even after the AUC was designated by the US as a foreign terrorist organisation in 2001.

While the AUC claimed to have been created to defend landowners from attacks and extortion attempts by left-wing rebels, the paramilitary group more often acted as a death squad for drug traffickers.

At its height, it had an estimated 30,000 members who engaged in intimidation, drug trafficking, extortion, forced displacement and killings.

It also launched brutal attacks on villagers they suspected of supporting left-wing rebels.

The group demobilised in 2006 after reaching a peace deal with the government, but some of its members went on to form new splinter groups which continue to be active.

The class-action lawsuit against Chiquita which ended on Monday focussed on nine cases, which were chosen out of hundreds of claims against the banana company.

The jury found that the AUC was responsible for eight of the nine murders examined as part of the lawsuit.

The jury also ruled that Chiquita had knowingly provided substantial assistance to the AUC, to a degree sufficient to create a foreseeable risk of harm.

Chiquita said in a statement released after the verdict that the situation in Colombia was “tragic for so many, including those directly affected by the violence there, and our thoughts remain with them and their families”.

“However, that does not change our belief that there is no legal basis for these claims,” it added.

The company said it remained confident that its legal position would ultimately prevail.

Agnieszka Fryszman, one of the leading lawyers for the plaintiffs, meanwhile praised the families she represented, saying that they had “risked their lives to come forward to hold Chiquita to account, putting their faith in the United States justice system”.

She added that “the verdict does not bring back the husbands and sons who were killed, but it sets the record straight and places accountability for funding terrorism where it belongs: at Chiquita’s doorstep”.

Another lawyer for the Colombian families, Leslie Kroeger, said that “after a long 17 years against a well-funded defence, justice was finally served”.

A second case against Chiquita brought by another group of plaintiffs is due to start on 15 July.

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