On April 24, 2003, a board member of Chiquita International Brands disclosed to a top official at the Justice Department that the king of the banana trade was evidently breaking the nation’s anti-terrorism laws.
Roderick M. Hills, who had sought the meeting with former law firm colleague Michael Chertoff, explained that Chiquita was paying “protection money” to a Colombian paramilitary group on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations. Hills said he knew that such payments were illegal, according to sources and court records, but said that he needed Chertoff’s advice.
Chiquita, Hills said, would have to pull out of the country if it could not continue to pay the violent right-wing group to secure its Colombian banana plantations. Chertoff, then assistant attorney general and now secretary of homeland security, affirmed that the payments were illegal but said to wait for more feedback, according to five sources familiar with the meeting.
According to the Chiquita officials, several of whom are facing charges, Chertoff never got back to them with advice. The payments continued as they awaited word from Chertoff on what to do, adding to their legal jeopardy.
But Chiquita may have done more than just buy off the AUC.
The attorney general of Colombia, Mario Iguaran, and other Colombian officials have dismissed Chiquita’s assertions that it was a victim of extortion and paid AUC to protect its workers. An Organization of American States report in 2003 said that Chiquita participated in smuggling thousands of arms for paramilitaries into the Northern Uraba region, using docks operated by the company to unload thousands of Central American assault rifles and ammunition.
Iguaran, whose office has been investigating Chiquita’s operations, said the company knew AUC was using payoffs and arms to fund operations against peasants, union workers and rivals. At the time of the payments, AUC was growing into a powerful army and was expanding across much of Colombia and, according to the Colombian government, its soldiers killed thousands before it began demobilizing.
Those are very serious accusations. I’m the second to last person to defend Chertoff, (I called on him to resign during the shamnesty debacle) and if he left the Chiquita execs hanging then he ought to be held to account for that. If Chiquita really was an active participant with AUC, though, then its accusations against Chertoff ought to be understood in that light, as possible shifting of blame from its own actions to Chertoff’s as a misdirection. And the two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive: Chertoff could have dropped the ball, and Chiquita might well be trying to misdirect attention onto his actions to cover up its own very serious crimes. If I were a betting man, that would be where I would put my money: Chiquita did more than it’s letting on, and Chertoff did less than his responsibilities dictated. The latter certainly fits his tenure at DHS.
It doesn’t look to me like anyone’s hands are clean in this.