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Fronting for Paramilitaries

Holder, Chiquita and Colombia

by MARIO A. MURILLO

First the good news: We’re two months away from President George W. Bush’s last full day in the White House. The countdown for the end of the nightmare has begun in earnest.

Now the bad news: As Barack Obama puts together his cabinet and eyes a slew of former Clinton officials for key staff positions, it is becoming ever more apparent that all those calls for change coming from progressive circles in the U.S. – and abroad – have fallen on deaf ears.

Most striking, at least for the time being, is the soon to be named position of the top law enforcement official of the country. It looks like the first African-American President will appoint the first African-American attorney general in the coming days, something that on the surface looks like an advance, but should actually sound alarm bells for anybody seeking true change in the way things are done in Washington, especially when it comes to bringing corporate criminals to justice.

Although no final decision has been made, the New York Times reports that the President-elect’s transition team has signaled to Eric H. Holder Jr., a senior Clinton Justice Department official, that he will be selected as the next attorney general. Holder helped lead the team that selected Sen. Joe Biden as Obama’s VP choice.

Most news accounts about the pending appointment seem to be limiting their criticism of Holder to one of his final acts as President Bill Clinton’s deputy attorney general in 2001. At the time, on the last day of Clinton’s term, Holder apparently said he was "neutral, leaning toward favorable" for a presidential pardon for Marc Rich, the wealthy commodities dealer whose ex-wife, Denise, was a major donor to the Democratic Party. Clinton’s pardon of the tax-evading Rich was criticized as politically motivated, leading to a congressional investigation over the matter.

What is not being discussed too much, and was not even mentioned in today’s New York Times report, is Holder’s key role in defending Chiquita Brands International in a notorious case relating to the company’s funneling money and weapons to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC, the right-wing paramilitary organization on the U.S. State Department’s own list of terrorist organizations.

In 2003, an Organization of American States report showed that Chiquita’s subsidiary in Colombia, Banadex, had helped divert weapons and ammunition, including thousands of AK-47s, from Nicaraguan government stocks to the AUC. The AUC – very often in collaboration with units of the U.S.-trained Armed Forces – is responsible for hundreds of massacres of primarily peasants throughout the Colombian countryside, including in the banana-growing region of Urabá, where it is believed that at least 4,000 people were killed. Their systematic use of violence resulted in the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of poor Colombians, a disproportionate amount of those people being black or indigenous.

In 2004, Holder helped negotiate an agreement with the Justice Department for Chiquita that involved the fruit company’s payment of "protection money" to the AUC, in direct violation of U.S. laws prohibiting this kind of transaction. In the agreement brokered by Holder, Chiquita officials pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a fine of $25 million, to be paid over a 5-year period. However, not one Chiquita official involved in the illegal transactions was forced to serve time for a crime that others have paid dearly for, mainly because they did not have the kind of legal backing that Holder’s team provided. Holder continues to represent Chiquita in the civil action, which grew out of this criminal case.

One of the arguments in defense of Chiquita’s criminal acts was that the company was being strong-armed by thugs in Colombia, and that it either had to make the payments, or close up shop in the country, which would have resulted in the loss of tens of millions of dollars in profits. Chiquita officials even disclosed to the Justice Department that they were making the illegal payments to the AUC, to see what could be done.

As the Washington Post reported back in 2007, Federal prosecutors had said in court papers that Justice Department officials made clear in April 2003 that Chiquita was clearly violating the law and that "the payments . . . could not continue."1 The Post reported "lawyers at Justice headquarters and the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington were incensed by what they considered the flagrant continuation of these payoffs, despite the warnings." At the time, Holder said he was concerned that company leaders who disclosed the corporation’s illegal activity to prosecutors were facing the possibility of prosecution.

"If what you want to encourage is voluntary self-disclosure, what message does this send to other companies?" asked Holder, deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. "Here’s a company that voluntarily self-discloses in a national security context, where the company gets treated pretty harshly, [and] then on top of that, you go after individuals who made a really painful decision."2

So in Holder’s view, we should feel sympathy for these poor corporate executives, whose identities were kept confidential, and who were forced to make "very painful decisions" about opening up to their own criminality. Never mind that this company was complicit in the above-mentioned human tragedy waged by the AUC. The many victims of this paramilitary terror did not even cross the mind of the well-connected defense attorney now being considered for the Attorney General job.

Yet the opposition to Holder’s nomination to the top position at Justice should not stop with this sordid history, one that perhaps can be excused as the obligation of a lawyer to defend his or her client regardless of the alleged crime. The disappointment in Obama’s pick for AG should stem from the President-elect’s strong words during the campaign in defense of human rights, particularly for those of workers in Colombia. On several occasions, including in the last presidential debate held at Hofstra University just three weeks before the election, the Democratic Candidate said he opposed the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement precisely on the grounds of the human rights violations carried out consistently against trade unionists in Colombia, and the ongoing impunity that has followed in most of those crimes.

This is directly connected to the Holder nomination because currently, there is a lawsuit underway from the families of 173 banana workers, who were killed by one of these paramilitary groups in Colombia. These family members do not buy into the argument, made by people like Holder and his Chiquita clients, that the company was forced to make these illegal payments to the AUC. Their claim is that Chiquita Brands International deliberately hired these armed thugs specifically to repress the rights of these workers, a tool used by other major multinationals operating in Colombian hot spots, including Coca Cola, BP, and the Drummond Corporation.

As Dan Kovalik recently wrote in the Huffington Post, the major concern that emerges with a Justice Department led by Holder is that none of these allegations will ever be fully investigated. Kovalik points to the Human Rights Watch report entitled, "Breaking the Grip? Obstacles to Justice for Paramilitary Mafias in Colombia," where the organization recommends that,

"in order to assist with the process of ending the ties between the Colombian government and paramilitary death squads, the U.S. Department of Justice should, among other things, "[c]reate meaningful legal incentives for paramilitary leaders [a number of whom have already been extradited to the U.S.] to fully disclose information about atrocities and name all Colombian or foreign officials, business or individuals who may have facilitated their criminal activities," and "[c]ollaborate actively with the efforts of Colombian justice officials who are investigating paramilitary networks in Colombia by sharing relevant information possible and granting them access to paramilitary leaders in U.S. custody."3

Will this recommendation be carried out by a Justice Department led by the man who defended one of the most visible protagonists in these crimes? If the Obama Administration is seriously concerned about impunity and human rights in Colombia, Holder should probably step out of the way immediately.

Furthermore, and as Kovalik pointed out in his Huffington Post commentary, one of the most notorious paramilitary leaders currently in U.S. federal custody, Salvatore Mancuso, claims that he has extensive knowledge, not only about Chiquita’s relationship with paramilitary death squads in Colombia, but with other major firms such as Dole and Del Monte. None of these firms are even on the radar screen of the Justice Department, and the question is whether or not they will be should Holder be appointed the next Attorney General. My assumption is that it is not a priority for Obama, certainly not for Holder.

The calls for change in Washington’s relationship with Latin America are coming from both within the United States and throughout the continent. There was no doubt that here in Colombia, people were relieved to hear of Barack Obama’s historic victory on November 4th. Given his public denunciations of the murders of hundreds of union leaders in Colombia, and his interesting life story which points to at least somewhat of a distinct international perspective, it was not surprising to hear car horns go off in the streets of some towns when he was declared the winner on election night.

But it now seems like business as usual in Washington, where corporate criminality is not a major priority, and justice is only an empty promise made on the backs of the victims of these crimes, directed mainly at gullible voters before elections.

We cannot let this happen.

1 The Washington Post, "In Terrorism-Law Case, Chiquita Points to U.S.," by Carol D. Leonnig, Thursday, August 2, 2007; Page A01.

2 Ibid.

3 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-kovalik/lawyer-for-chiquita-in-co_b_141919.html

MARIO A. MURILLO is associate professor of Communication at Hofstra University in New York and author of Colombia and the United states: War, Unrest and Destabilization. He is currently living in Colombia working on a book about the indigenous movement and its uses of communications media. He can be reached through his website.