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Colombia victims sue Chiquita for damages

Victims of Colombian paramilitaries and rebels Thursday filed for damages against Chiquita Brands after the U.S. fruit company pleaded guilty to paying protection money to an illegal armed group and agreed to a $25 million fine, one of their attorneys said.
/ Source: Reuters

Victims of Colombian paramilitaries and rebels Thursday filed for damages against Chiquita Brands after the U.S. fruit company pleaded guilty to paying protection money to an illegal armed group and agreed to a $25 million fine, one of their attorneys said.

The lawsuit against Chiquita in Washington came just as President Alvaro Uribe visited the U.S. capital to assuage U.S. Democrats skeptical over a scandal tying some of his allies to the paramilitary commanders, who are accused of atrocities in Colombia’s 4-decade-old conflict.

A spokesman for Chiquita did not return calls seeking comment about the civil suit filed in the U.S. federal court for the District of Columbia.

Chiquita, one of the world’s largest banana producers, agreed to a $25 million fine after pleading guilty in March to paying off the violent AUC paramilitary group from 1997 to 2004, when it sold its local subsidiary.

Colombia’s AUC — the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia — is accused of some of the worst violence and massacres before it began disarming in 2003. The illegal militias began in the 1980s to counter the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas.

“We filed a complaint in U.S. federal court for damages on behalf of the 144 people who had family members who were murdered by the AUC or the FARC during the period of time Chiquita was providing them support,” Terry Collingsworth, an attorney with International Rights Advocates, told Reuters.

According to its March plea agreement, Chiquita paid more than $1.7 million to the paramilitaries and continued even after the U.S. designated the AUC as a foreign terrorist organization in September 2001. Chiquita disclosed its payments to the Justice Department in 2003.

Uribe, a key White House ally, is under fire at home and in the U.S. Congress over an investigation that has linked several of his legislative allies to the paramilitaries, who had disarmed under a peace deal with his government.

Violence has fallen sharply under Uribe, who has received billions of dollars in U.S. military and counter-narcotics aid to fight the guerrillas and cocaine traffickers. But the FARC is still fighting Latin America’s oldest insurgency.