Chiquita may face prosecution for supporting Colombian terrorists, according to court rules

Like thousands of Colombians, Jose Lopez’s seven children have spent more than a decade fighting to hold Chiquita Brands International accountable for the financial support of a terrorist organization that has ravaged the country during its murderous decade-long rule.

But even though one of the group’s leaders has apologized to the grieving family for kidnapping and shooting their father, and a Colombian court has found he was responsible for Lopez’s death, a Federal judge ruled that was not enough to drag the banana giant into search.

That changed this month when an appeals court, in a stunning reversal, reinstated allegations that Chiquita and some of its chief executives violated Colombian law and US anti-torture law by funneling 1.7 million dollars to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), which the US government has designated as a foreign terrorist organization.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling paves the way for thousands of victims of the bloody regime of the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary group, to spend their day in court, West Palm Beach attorneys say, James Green and Jack Scarola.

“Chiquita is facing, by any reasonable measure, billions of dollars in damages,” Scarola said.

Cincinnati attorney Michael Cioffi, who represents the company which has offices near Fort Lauderdale and in North Carolina and Switzerland, declined to comment. Company officials could not be reached.

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“Funding a terrorist organization can never be treated as a cost of doing business”

More than 7,500 people who lost loved ones during the AUC’s horrific campaign have filed lawsuits against Chiquita. Lawsuits from across the country have been consolidated and are being heard by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra in West Palm Beach.

The lawsuits were filed over a decade ago after Chiquita in 2007 pleaded guilty to a felony charge of doing business with a terrorist organization, admitting she paid the AUC 1.7 million dollars from 1997 to 2004 to protect its banana-growing operations in war-torn countries. country. He agreed to pay a $25 million fine, the largest ever imposed under global terrorism sanctions regulations.

“Funding a terrorist organization can never be treated as a cost of doing business,” Jeffrey Taylor, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, said at the time in announcing the plea deal. “American companies should take note that payments to terrorists are in a whole different category. They are crimes.”

Since then, the complex litigation has consumed lawyers on two continents with American lawyers, including Green, traveling to Colombia to interview those who were victims of the death squads and members of the group who were convicted in Colombia for their role in bloodshed.

To prove their claims against Chiquita, the victims must first prove that the AUC is responsible for the deaths.

Noting the complexity of the case, the three appeals court judges applauded Marra’s ability to sift through thousands of documents. As for his decisions, “we conclude that (Marra) was right and wrong.”

For example, according to the report, Marra erroneously ruled that Lopez’s children could not testify that AUC commander Rendón Herrera confessed to the murder of their father because the family’s lawyers had not filed it. . The appeals court pointed out that lawyers twice arranged to question Herrera in Colombia and that he failed to show up.

“These two failed depositions show that the plaintiffs used reasonable means to try to obtain the testimony of Mr. Rendón Herrera”, judged the judges of the court of appeal. Therefore, they said, the Lopez children could tell a jury that he confessed to killing their father.

Like many former AUC leaders, Herrera was prosecuted in Colombia. Under what is known as the Justice and Peace process, those suspected of tens of thousands of murders have been encouraged to confess in exchange for lenient sentences. Prosecutors were required to verify confessions and those who lied were charged with perjury

While Marra refused to allow documents from the Colombian process to be used to support claims of AUC involvement in the deaths, the appeals court said some could be used to prove the narco- terrorist was responsible.

During a July 2008 protest in Bogota, Colombia, a woman holds a photo of a relative who disappeared under the rule of the paramilitary group AUC, which operated in the country from 1997 to 2006.

AUC targeted and tortured political enemies, banana workers, trade unionists, analyst says

Additionally, the appeals judges said academic and legal experts could testify about the lawsuits and explain the terror the AUC has wreaked.

Oliver Kaplan, a University of Denver professor who has spent decades visiting Colombia and studying the decades-long bloody civil war, will be allowed to tell a jury that the murders described by family members bear all the hallmarks of those perpetrated by members of the AUC.

They were known to target political enemies, banana workers and trade unionists, he said in deposition cited by the appeals court. Driving high-cylinder motorcycles and white or gray cars, they plagued the rural banana-growing region by grabbing people from buses and torturing and beheading the victims.

Some of the murders were public executions. In many cases, people simply disappeared.

The decision of the Court of Appeal concerns a dozen so-called flagship cases. They were chosen from the scores that were filed to give both sides an idea of ​​their chances of success. The goal is to stimulate settlement talks.

Scarola and Green said it was unclear if the cases would be settled out of court.

In 2018, Chiquita settled a lawsuit with the families of five missionaries from central Florida and an Alabama geologist who were killed by a left-wing rebel group that terrorized Colombians in the 1990s. admitted to paying $220,000 to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known by their Spanish acronym FARC. He claimed responsibility for the murders.

So far, Chiquita has vigorously defended the AUC’s cases in hopes that the victims and their attorneys will give up, Scarola said.

“It may take them a few tries to realize that they won’t escape paying reasonable compensation for the devastation they financed,” Scarola said.

Even if Chiquita wins a few of the cases, dozens more will be waiting in the wings, he said. “This is not a class action case where you win or lose and that’s it. This is a mass crime. The cases keep coming.

Jane Musgrave covers federal and civil courts and occasionally ventures into criminal trials in state court. Contact her at jmusgrave@pbpost.com.

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