The Miami Herald
Fri, Feb. 27, 2009

Multinational accused of massacres in Colombia

Associated Press

Chiquita Brands International asked a judge Friday to dismiss lawsuits claiming the banana company paid Colombian paramilitary groups who killed hundreds or even thousands of people.

Lawyers for Chiquita insisted that the money it paid over a seven-year period to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia had no direct connection to massacres, kidnappings, assassinations and acts of intimidation committed by the group in banana-growing regions.

''There are no allegations that Chiquita was directly involved in any of these incidents,'' said Gregg Levy, an attorney for Cincinnati-based Chiquita.

The company acknowledges a subsidiary had paid the right-wing paramilitary group -- known by its Spanish acronym AUC -- and another group. But its lawyers contend the company was essentially extorted by the groups that controlled areas where its bananas are grown.

But lawyers for the Colombian plaintiffs claim in the lawsuits that Chiquita should be held liable for billions of dollars in wrongful death damages, alleging it paid both the AUC and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The United States lists both as terrorist groups.

''The AUC was engaging in murder, torture, forced disappearances and destruction of these communities,'' said Terry Collingsworth, representing family members of about 173 people who died. ``Everybody knew this. Chiquita knew it.''

The lawsuits claim Chiquita should be held liable for allegedly providing material support to the AUC in the form of cash, weapons like AK-47s, military supplies and even access to its banana ports for cocaine trafficking.

In return, lawyers for the hundreds of Colombian plaintiffs claim, the AUC used violence to drive out or kill Colombian labor leaders, attack rival left-wing FARC guerrillas and their sympathizers, and essentially become rulers of a region encompassing some 200 Chiquita banana farms.

The lawsuits were filed around the country and consolidated in West Palm Beach before U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra, who held a hearing Friday on the company's motions to dismiss.

Marra is expected to issue a written ruling later in cases that collectively could amount to the largest wrongful death claims in U.S. history, according to attorneys involved.

There was no timetable for the judge to issue his ruling.

One claim on behalf of more than 600 people identified only as ''Juan Does and Juana Does'' is seeking $20 million for each plaintiff, or more than $13 billion.

Another lawsuit seeks class-action status.