Colombia: Murder Victims’ Families Sue Chiquita

Fifty relatives of 22 people murdered by Colombian paramilitary groups have filed a suit against Chiquita Brands International for helping to finance the groups. The murders were committed between 1997 and 2004 in the north-west banana-growing region of Uraba, near the Panamanian border.

The case is being handled by Colombian lawyers and Conrad & Scherer LLP of Fort Lauderdale, and was filed in U.S. District Court under the Alien Tort Claims Act. The Act, created in 1789, states that "[t]he [US] district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort [compensation from the offending party] only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." This act, while probably originally created to protect US ambassadors and combat piracy, has been increasingly invoked in legal battles over Human Rights abuses committed outside the United States.

As William J. Wichmann, a partner at Conrad & Scherer LLP, said "We will be asking for significant compensatory and punitive damages for these tragic deaths caused by a terrorist group that Chiquita has admitted it financed."

Chiquita has maintained that it was "forced" to pay the AUC to protect its property and workers in Colombia. "Chiquita was a victim of extortion in Colombia and we will not allow ourselves to become extortion victims in the United States. We’ll vigorously defend ourselves against preposterous suits such as these," Michael Mitchell, a Chiquita spokesman said.

This past March, Chiquita signed a plea deal and agreed to pay $25 million in fines, admitting it made payments to the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). The fine is based upon the fact that the U.S. government has designated AUC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, making it illegal for US companies to knowingly support them. As the continuation of the United Fruit Company, Chiquita has a long history of expolitation of Colombian resouces and workers.