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Chiquita Brands International Inc. again has offered its “condolences” to thousands of Colombians whose loved ones were slain, but the company steadfastly maintains that it was morally right in financing right-wing terrorists until 2004.

Its statements are part of a June 12 response to human rights groups that are calling on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the funding.

Chiquita pleaded guilty in 2007 to spending $1.7 million to finance a Colombian paramilitary organization officially designated as a global terrorist group. The company paid a $25 million fine, made compliance reforms and served five years on probation.

Chiquita was then based in Cincinnati. In 2015, a joint venture formed by agribusiness Grupo Cutrale and J. Safra Group acquired Chiquita, took the company private and moved its principal office to Rolle, Switzerland, with its North American office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

For the past 10 years, the company has repeatedly offered its condolences, but claimed its payments were morally justified to protect its employees in Colombia. But some 6,000 family members of victims say otherwise in civil suits against Chiquita and seven of its past executives, including Robert Olson, who was the company’s general counsel when the payments were made.

Now, the coalition of Colombian and international human rights groups has asked the ICC to investigate 14 former and current Chiquita executives and employees who they claim had direct involvement in facilitating crimes against humanity by funding right-wing paramilitary squads amid a Colombian civil war.

Their petition accuses the suspects of making repeated payments despite knowing of the terrorists’ “involvement in murder, forced displacement, enforced disappearance, sexual violence, torture and persecution of civilians.”

In its June 12 response, Chiquita notes that an internal investigation by Fried, Frank, Shriver & Johnson in 2007 “found absolutely no evidence to suggest that either the company or its management was influenced by any motivation other than the sincere and abiding belief that payments to Colombian paramilitary groups were made under duress and were necessary to protect the lives of its employees.” A copy of the report is here.

The response concludes, “We have been clear that, at all times, the company prioritized the safety of its employees and their families, and acted accordingly.  Once an American jury hears all of the evidence we are certain that Chiquita will be completely vindicated.”

After years of legal wrangling, the company may get its wish. An American jury trial has finally been scheduled.

The families’ lawsuits were combined in multi-district litigation before U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra in West Palm Beach, Fla. To begin, Marra has set two bellwether trials, the first for Oct. 28, 2019, and the second for Feb. 3, 2020, according to recent court documents.

 

Contact Sue Reisinger at sreisinger@alm.com.

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