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Chiquita and the long, dark history of conducting business in weak states

Here’s what you need to know about the U.S. court case that found Chiquita liable for killings carried out by a Colombian paramilitary group.

- June 17, 2024
Poster of the banana industry, circa 1929, via Wikimedia Commons.

On June 10, the jury in a U.S. federal court case found Chiquita Brands International liable for killings carried out by a Colombian paramilitary group – a group that the company funded from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. The court ordered the multinational distributor of bananas and produce to pay $38.3 million to family members of the eight victims named in the lawsuit.

Chiquita Brands began operating as the United Fruit Company in 1899. It rebranded as Chiquita Brands International in 1990 after decades of successful Miss Chiquita advertising campaigns. The legacy of the multinational in Latin America, the main site of Chiquita’s banana cultivation, is far darker than the cute, wholesome image it has cultivated in the U.S. market.

Chiquita’s funding of Colombian paramilitaries fits into a long history of intervention into politics across Latin America. The evidence unearthed as part of the case illustrates some of the ways in which the multinational company was able to use its outsized economic power to conduct business in weak states.

How we’ve learned about Chiquita’s private actions 

United Fruit, now Chiquita, kept many records related to its business. As anthropologist Philippe Bourgois notes, the company archived  “discussions, reports, and directives by managers, lawyers, accountants, undercover informants, and lobbyists documenting strategies for reducing taxes, increasing labor discipline, consolidating landholdings, and maximizing political influence.”

Some of these records have become public. For example, while conducting fieldwork on United Fruit in Costa Rica, Bourgois was able to access a warehouse with boxes of internal documents that had somehow escaped an order to be destroyed. Those documents are now publicly available

Another set of documents became available after the U.S. government’s investigation into Chiquita’s conduct in Colombia. In 2003, Chiquita executives admitted to the Department of Justice that they made payments to Colombian groups that the U.S. had designated as foreign terrorist organizations. This began a multiyear investigation that ended in Chiquita pleading guilty and agreeing to pay $25 million in fines.

Following the case, the National Security Archive began filing Freedom of Information requests to gain access to the “legal and financial documents that the company turned over to the U.S. government during federal investigations of its Colombian operations.” This collection of internal documents related to Chiquita’s activities in Colombia, which was used as key evidence in the recent civil trial, is also available to the public

Chiquita’s history in Colombia

Fans of Latin American literature may have inadvertently learned of the nasty business of banana production in Colombia from Gabriel García Márquez’s famous book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the novel, Márquez writes a fictionalized account of one of Colombia’s early banana-producing regions and a massacre that occurred there. 

The stylized massacre that appears in Márquez’s 1967 novel is based on an actual event that occurred in response to a banana worker strike. As historian Marcelo Bucheli explains in his book, Bananas and Business: The United Fruit Company in Colombia, 1899-2000, in its early years in Colombia, United Fruit not only harvested bananas, but also ran company towns. Workers, who were often subcontractors, lived in company-owned housing, relied on company-provided services, and were paid with credits that could only be used in United Fruit commissaries. In 1928, banana workers went on strike to push the company to modernize and improve labor conditions.

In response, United Fruit hired strike breakers – who were able to work largely due to the protection of the Colombian army. When the striking workers continued to press for their demands, the army ended the strike by opening fire on the strikers. The Colombian government subsequently destroyed the workers’ union. In this period, United Fruit was able to rely on the state to intervene on their behalf.

However, Bucheli notes that despite the losses the workers suffered, the way that Colombia’s conservative government handled the strike weakened its political standing. The liberal government that replaced it was more supportive of labor and the company could no longer rely on Colombia’s military as a private security force. For United Fruit, this meant adapting to the changing circumstances and developing new business models and sources of support.

Bananas and civil conflict 

Fast forward to the 1990s, the period under scrutiny in the recent trial. Chiquita never resumed the cozy relationship with the government that it had during its early days in Colombia. But the more acute issue in the 1990s was the civil conflict between the Colombian government and guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The conflict seriously strained Colombia’s state capacity. In some areas of the country – notably in the main banana zones – the government ceded key state functions to right-wing paramilitary groups such as the United Self-Defenses of Colombia (AUC).

In this context, Chiquita made payments to various armed groups to smooth business operations in northern Colombia. Chiquita made payments to the FARC in the early 1990s, apparently under an agreement that the leftist revolutionaries would not interfere with Chiquita’s management of the banana unions.   

Support for right-wing groups

Yet in the mid-1990s, Chiquita transitioned to funding right-wing paramilitaries. In a 2007 lawsuit, Chiquita admitted to making over 100 payments totaling over $1.7 million to the AUC between 1997 and 2004. Evidence from internal documents released through Freedom of Information requests show that the payments to right-wing groups began as early as 1992

Chiquita claims that it made the payments to the AUC under duress, but the jury in the recent civil case rejected their defense. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary in Chiquita’s internal communications.

In one memo about payments to the Comandos Populares, a group that merged with the AUC, Chiquita’s chief of security at the time noted that the group had “helped us out a lot with the labor issue.” The company acknowledges in other memos that the payments were for security services and intelligence on guerrilla activity.    

In this context, the murders of trade unionists, banana workers, and activists by the paramilitaries that received Chiquita support seem not too distant from the 1928 massacre. But the verdict in the recent case means that families of these victims will receive compensation. And this court case may also send a signal that profiting from human rights violations can create meaningful legal costs for multinational corporations.

Heather Sullivan is a 2024-2025 Good Authority fellow.