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Chiquita is ordered to pay millions to families of death squad victims in Colombia

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

In a rare development, a U.S. company, Chiquita Brands International, has been ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages to relatives of death squad victims in Colombia. Reporter John Otis explains why.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In 2003, Raquel Sena was sorting bananas at a huge Chiquita plantation in northern Colombia when she learned that paramilitaries had kidnapped her husband. He had angered the gunmen by refusing to sell them a plot of land at a steep discount.

RAQUEL SENA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Sena tells NPR that the militias stopped her husband's car, pulled him out and shot him dead.

SENA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "It was really hard," says Sena, who had to take care of their eight children. "I began to cry. I didn't know what to do." It turns out that Sena's employer, Chiquita, which is one of the world's largest banana companies, had been helping to bankroll the paramilitaries. These were right-wing death squads that protected large landowners and businesses from Marxist rebels during Colombia's Guerrilla War. Between 1997 and 2004, Chiquita paid $1.7 million to the paramilitaries. After pleading guilty in a U.S. federal court in 2007 to financing a terrorist group, Chiquita was fined $25 million.

But that was just the start of the company's legal woes. Last week a Florida jury found Chiquita liable for the deaths of eight people killed by paramilitaries during the time frame when Chiquita was paying these militias. The jury stated that Chiquita must pay their families $38 million in compensation.

MARCO SIMONS: We believe this is the first time that a U.S. jury has found a corporation liable for serious human rights abuses overseas.

OTIS: That's Marco Simons, general counsel for EarthRights International, an advocacy group representing the plaintiffs. He says the verdict sends a powerful message to all corporations that they can be prosecuted for human rights abuses committed abroad. Chiquita argued that it was the victim of a mafia-like extortion scheme, that it was forced to pay the paramilitaries and that it did so to protect its employees. But thanks to several damaging documents, the jury concluded that Chiquita's support for the paramilitaries was voluntary.

MICHAEL EVANS: One of the things the plaintiffs kept coming back to is this memo where one Chiquita executive writes that this is just the cost of doing business in Colombia.

OTIS: That's Michael Evans of the Washington-based National Security Archive, which has spent years investigating Chiquita.

EVANS: This case is, at its origin, I think, about a company that bought up farmland in the middle of a raging internal conflict at bargain basement prices.

OTIS: Simons, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, pointed out that the paramilitaries killed thousands of people.

SIMONS: This is just the first set of deaths to actually get to a jury trial, but there are many more behind it.

OTIS: He said future cases could be resolved through trials or an eventual settlement with Chiquita. Chiquita expressed disappointment in last week's court ruling, which it is appealing. As for Raquel Sena, the widowed former Chiquita worker, she still lives amid the banana fields of northern Colombia on her $240 monthly pension. Her claim against Chiquita could be part of a future trial, and she's hoping for a life-changing chunk of cash.

SENA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: She says, "I'd use the money to buy a new house far away from here." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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