Sun. Jul 21st, 2024

Historic Chiquita trials — and verdict — bear a big South Florida imprint

This month a federal jury in West Palm Beach handed down a historic verdict. In what’s believed to be a first, a major U.S. corporation was found liable in a U.S. civil court for actions that helped lead to murder and other human rights abuses against non-Americans in a foreign country.

The corporation is Chiquita Brands; the country is Colombia. And the $38.3 million judgment against Chiquita may be only the start — because a second bellwether trial against the company is set to begin in West Palm Beach on July 15.

Either way, the pioneering proceedings bear a big South Florida imprint, starting with West Palm Beach attorney Jack Scarola, who’s co-leading the case against Chiquita.

“You cannot trade human lives for profits,” Scarola told WLRN in summing up the argument for the plaintiffs, the almost 20 Colombian victims’ families — eight of whom were awarded the almost $40 million verdict issued on June 10. Ten more are expected to be included in next month’s trial.

Chiquita, the U.S. fruit giant that has a long and controversial history in Latin America, is accused of aiding and abetting the killing of thousands of Colombians two decades ago by a right-wing paramilitary army, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC.

Chiquita paid that group — designated by the U.S. as terrorists — almost $2 million in extortion money from 1997 to 2004 to protect the company’s lucrative Colombian banana operation. Scarola says the jury concluded that money helped fund the AUC’s death squads.

“We have unfortunately often seen this pattern of conduct from U.S. corporations, in Colombia or Central America or Africa, because they think they simply aren’t going to be watched as carefully,” Scarola says.

“This verdict demonstrates they will be watched.”

Chiquita says it will appeal the verdict. In statements, it emphasizes that it deplores the AUC’s terrorism, which targeted many banana labor activists. But it insists it had no choice but to pay the AUC to keep its business and employees safe during the civil war raging in Colombia at that time.

That question was central to this month’s trial. But jurors unanimously concluded not only that Chiquita did have a moral alternative to paying the extortion money, but that by playing ball with the AUC — as well as leftist guerrillas known as the FARC, who were also a designated terrorist group — the company simply helped exacerbate the horrors of Colombia’s conflict.

When the AUC victims’ spouses and other relatives began fleeing to Florida at the turn of the century, human rights advocates began taking notice of their stories. Among them was human rights attorney James Green of West Palm Beach, who played a large role in getting the Chiquita plaintiffs represented here by litigation firms like Scarola’s Searcy Law.

Another was a Roman Catholic priest in Palm Beach County, Father Frank O’Laughlin, who heads the nonprofit Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach. He helped spearhead an effort to publicize the Colombians’ cases — such as the horrific 2001 kidnapping murder of a teenager in Urabá, Colombia — and Chiquita’s alleged role.

“The realities of Colombia had come to Florida, and there was no walking away from it,” O’Laughlin says. “The only one way to tackle it was to take on the evil of the reality in court.”

“Many U.S. corporations, in Colombia or Central America or Africa, think they won’t be watched as carefully. This verdict demonstrates they will be.”

Jack Scarola

In 2007, the U.S. Justice Department did in fact charge Chiquita with doing business with a terrorist organization. In its guilty plea, Chiquita paid a $25 million fine.

That — and the reams of documented admissions of guilt the corporation left in its wake — led the Colombian victims’ families to seek civil damages as well. After 17 years of legal wrangling, cases were finally funneled to the federal court in West Palm Beach this year. And, once again, with notable South Florida involvement, including the University of Miami School of Law and its Human Rights Clinic.

“It definitely taught me a lot of what has been useful for this case,” says Gabriela Valentin Diaz, a staff attorney for the human rights nonprofit EarthRights International, which has helped build plaintiffs’ cases in the Chiquita trial.

No small feat

Before joining EarthRights, Valentin Diaz was a University of Miami law student and alumna working with the school’s human rights clinic to assist those plaintiffs in Colombia.

“They’re coming to a different country to testify in front of a court, which can be a really intimidating environment,” Valentin Diaz says. “But they’re seeing their claims and their stories told in a U.S. court – and a jury deciding in their favor.

“And that’s no small feat.”

Right-wing Colombian paramilitary enforcers stop campesinos at a roadblock in Santa Fe de Ralito, Colombia, in 2004.
Right-wing Colombian paramilitary enforcers stop campesinos at a roadblock in Santa Fe de Ralito, Colombia, in 2004.

The Chiquita trials are being held in a U.S. court because Chiquita is based in the U.S. — but also because holding them in Colombia risked putting the plaintiffs in danger.

Still, the AUC crimes were committed in Colombia, so Colombian law predominates in the trials. As a result, University of Miami law professor Pablo Rueda Saiz, a Colombia native, is serving as an expert witness on how to blend U.S. and Colombian tort procedure.

And U Miami is playing a role beyond the trials: law professor and corporate accountability expert Marcia Narine Weldon advises other U.S. companies on how to avoid the kind of tragic mess Chiquita got itself into in Colombia.

“This [Chiquita verdict], I think, is the wake-up call that companies needed to have,” says Narine Weldon, who teaches a business and human rights course.

“If you are dealing with Latin America, you have to know that [what happened to Chiquita] is not an acceptable cost of doing business — because, actually, it can cost you your business.”

Narine Weldons says that’s an especially important message in South Florida, where so many businesses do have ties to Latin America.

Chiquita could face other civil trials after next month’s. In the end, it may not cost Chiquita its business — but experts like Narine Weldon point out that what it could cost Chiquita could far surpass the profits it made in Colombia while it was paying off a terrorist group. source