JURY RENDERS UNANIMOUS VERDICT AGAINST CHIQUITA BRANDS, INTERNATIONAL FOR FUNDING TERRORIST GROUP IN COLOMBIA

The lead trial attorneys, Jack Scarola of West Palm Beach, Florida and Jonathan C. Reiter of New York City attacked Chiquita’s claim that it was being extorted by the AUC.

New York, NY, June 12, 2024 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) —  On July 10, 2024, a jury in United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida rendered a unanimous verdict holding Chiquita Brands International, Inc. liable to pay $38.3 million dollars in damages to the families of eight persons murdered in Colombia by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (“AUC”) between 1997 and 2004. The AUC was an illegal paramilitary group that had been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (“FTO”) and Specially Designated Global Terrorist (“SDGT”) by the United States Government in 2001, making it a crime to engage in financial or other transactions with the AUC. Despite this, Chiquita had engaged in a systematic and prolonged series of payments to the AUC between 1997 and 2004 that were illegal under the laws of both Colombia and the United States. The United States Department of Justice prosecuted Chiquita for these payments, culminating in Chiquita’s guilty plea in 2007 to the crime of engaging in transactions with a Specially Designated Global Terrorist for which it paid a fine of $25 million dollars.

Subsequently civil suits were brought in the United States against Chiquita to obtain compensation for the victims of AUC violence in Colombia predicated upon Chiquita’s material support of a terrorist organization in the form of money as well as other forms of collaboration with the AUC, including facilitating the provision of weapons, ammunition, fuel and communications equipment to the paramilitaries. The Court held the first of two “bellwether trials” involving nine murder victims out of the several thousand claimants who have filed suit in New York, Florida, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

The lead trial attorneys, Jack Scarola of West Palm Beach, Florida and Jonathan C. Reiter of New York City attacked Chiquita’s claim that it was being extorted by the AUC. Mr. Reiter presented testimony by a witness who had worked for Chiquita’s security department, as well as another witness who had worked for Chiquita, and subsequently joined the AUC as a commander, committing multiple murders and kidnappings, both of whom testified to the true nature of the relationship between the AUC and Chiquita, which was one of collaboration and not extortion. On summation, Mr. Reiter denounced this relationship as a sinister partnership that endangered the lives of the victims.

The jury found that Chiquita failed to conduct itself as a “reasonable business person” and that it had knowingly engaged in a “hazardous activity” that substantially increased the risk of harm to the plaintiff’s murdered family members. Notably, the jury rejected Chiquita’s defense of duress, finding in substance that Chiquita had failed to prove that it was free of negligence in knowingly placing itself in harm’s way and failing to timely leave Colombia. Mr. Scarola aptly pointed out that Chiquita’s own expert witness, former CIA agent Jack Devine had testified that when faced with alleged extortion claims, the proper response is not to pay, but rather to delay just so long as it takes to extricate oneself from the situation. Chiquita had done just the opposite, by acceding to alleged AUC demands for money over a prolonged period and then complaining that it could not stop without endangering its employees.

Each of the victims’ family members presented testimony that the AUC had killed their loved ones. One of Mr. Reiter’s clients described how two AUC paramilitaries cut her husband’s throat in front of her and her two young daughters as part of an AUC “cleansing operation.” In another case presented by Mr. Reiter, eyewitnesses testified that plaintiff’s son was abducted from a banana farm, tied up and transported on a motorcycle by a known AUC assassin and executed with two gunshot wounds to the head. Later, the AUC commander, alias Carlos “Tijeras” (the “Scissors”), confronted plaintiff’s relative who had found the victim’s body covered in blood and plantain leaves and brought the body to his father’s home. “Tijeras” interrogated the witness at an illegal roadblock inquiring why the witness had “moved the body we left there”. It was characteristic of the AUC’s terrorist tactics to insist that their murder victims be left in place to serve as a warning to others, a behavior described as “violent display” by Professor Oliver Kaplan, an expert witness for the plaintiffs.

Mr. Scarola delivered the main summation on behalf of the plaintiffs, emphasizing that Chiquita knew when it began acquiring farms in Colombia that it would be endangering the lives of its employees and innocent civilians due to the known violence of various terrorist groups. Mr. Reiter delivered additional closing remarks pointing out that Chiquita knew that the AUC was using the money it was contributing to buy guns and drugs to fund its terrorist activities, but simply did not care so long as it was continuing to reap large profits from the sale of bananas. He told the jury that while Chiquita’s attorneys had expressed their personal sympathy to each of the victim’s relatives who took the witness stand, the proper time to express concern for the victims was in Colombia during 1997 through 2004, not in the courtroom in 2024. He emphasized that that if Chiquita had cared about the devastating effect its collaboration with the AUC was having upon the innocent people of Colombia there would never have been a need to have a trial at all.

Mr. Reiter emphasized that despite Chiquita’s claims that it had failed to become aware of the AUC’s designation as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2001, ignorance of the law was no excuse. In response to Chiquita’s apparent plea to the Department of Justice that if it stopped paying the AUC it would endanger the lives of its employees, Mr. Reiter stated that the task of the Department of Justice was to enforce the laws enacted by Congress, signed by the President and administered by the Department of State, not to give advice to banana companies as whether they should continue to violate the law by paying terrorists.

The jury’s verdict was a landmark, since no previous jury had ever rendered a verdict against an American corporation for aiding and abetting human rights violations in a foreign country. A second bellwether trial is scheduled to begin in July 2024.

Source:

For further information contact:

Jonathan C. Reiter

Empire State Building

350 Fifth Avenue

Suite 6400

New York, New York 10118

212-736-0979

Jcreiter@jcreiterlaw.com

www.jcreiterlaw.com

Resources for media: 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daphneewingchow/2024/06/11/chiquita-brands-found-guilty-of-funding-colombian-terrorist-group/