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Down Where the Death Squads Live

How Human Rights Watch Covers for Companies in Colombia

by DANIEL KOVALIK

On the CounterPunch masthead are these words proudly written, “Tells the Facts, Names the Names.” It’s because CounterPunch lives up to these words that I happily write for it and proudly donate to it.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), on the other hand, fails to name the names in its recent report on Colombia entitled, “The Risk of Returning Home, Violence and Threats against Displaced People Reclaiming Land in Colombia.” [1] And, this is much to HRW’s discredit.

Before diving into the report and its grave shortcomings, some general comments about HRW are in order. For years, I have been concerned about what appears to be HRW’s penchant for helping lay the groundwork for U.S. and NATO strikes against claimed enemies of the West. Most recently, HRW’s Executive Director, Kenneth Roth, has been fulminating on his Twitter account against anyone, including the EU, who refuses to acknowledge what has yet to be proven as fact – that the Syrian government was allegedly responsible for the chemical attack of August 21, 2013.

This is an obvious attempt by Roth and HRW, proponents of the so-called “right to protect” doctrine, to gin up support for an attack on Syria in the ostensible name of human rights. Of course, given that HRW has a former Secretary General of NATO, Javier Solana, on its Board of Directors [2], this pursuit should come as little surprise. Meanwhile, Roth is also promoting what he calls a “New alliance formed to secure fair #Afghanistan elections, protect women’s rights & civil society, improve governance httrib.al/Y6L9oty.” If you click on the link, you’ll see an “alliance” headed by such rogues as Stephen Hadly, Former National Security Advisor to George W. Bush; Michele Flournoy, Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Obama Administration; and, of course, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Admiral James Stavridis. That is, the alliance that Roth believes will secure human and women’s rights in Afghanistan is made up of the very individuals who have undermined these rights for years.

In its report on Colombia, HRW betrays not its pro-NATO proclivities, but rather, its pro-corporate ones. In this report, HRW does do a good job of detailing the grisly violence — including threats, assaults, rapes and murders — which continues to keep Colombia in the number one spot in the world for internally displaced peoples (IDPs) at nearly 5 million. And, as HRW relates, it does so despite a recent law which was passed to allow these peoples, disproportionately Afro-Colombian and indigenous, to return to their farms and ancestral lands which was forcibly taken from them.

However, while HRW, throughout a 184-page report, gives details and names of both the armed perpetrators as well as the victims of the violent attempt of “bad faith landowners” to hold on to their ill-gotten land, HRW fails to ever name the corporations which constitute the biggest “bad faith landowners” in Colombia. Instead, throughout this report, HRW refers vaguely, but ad nauseam, to “businesspersons,” “businessmen,” “landowners,” “cattle ranchers,” “regional elites,” “mining and agro-industry,” “private companies,” and to unnamed “banana companies” which are systematically funding and using paramilitary death squads to keep thousands of internally displaced peoples from reclaiming the land which is legally theirs.

One walks away from this report with a dizzying sense of the violence which stalks the Colombian people — in places such as Cubarado and Jiguamiando which are detailed in the HRW report — but with an equal sense of powerlessness and hopelessness to do anything about it. What are we to do after all? Should we be writing to the paramilitary groups, such as the Urabenos which are named in the report, and politely ask them to stop raping and killing people?

Thankfully, to answer this question, we can turn to good and decent people and organizations which, unlike HRW, are not beholden to NATO overlords or to the types of investment bankers which populate the HRW Board. One such organization, which I have mentioned before in my writings, is the Interchurch Justice and Peace Commission (IJCP), an organization which is headed by such brave souls as my friend, Jesuit priest Father Javier Giraldo – a man who, in his tiny five-foot frame, has more courage in him than anyone I’ve ever known.

And so, it was of no surprise to me when, in searching the internet to find the answers left open by the HRW report, I chanced upon an August 2012 report authored by IJCP entitled, “Colombia: Banacol, a company implicated in land grabbing in Cubarado and Jiguamiando.” [3] And, there you have it, right in the title – Banacol. And, while this is not a household name, IJCP tells you just who Banacol is, and why you should care.

Thus, IJCP explains that Banacol is the successor-in-interest to Banadex, the former subsidiary of none other than Chiquita Brands which pled guilty to paying paramilitary death squads $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004, and supplying them with 3,000 AK-47s. Chiquita pled guilty after being indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for illegally funding the AUC paramilitaries – a designated terrorist group – through the Banadex subsidiary which supplied it from Colombia with fruit sold under the Chiquita Brands name. For its high crime, Chiquita was fined a mere $25 million which it was allowed to pay over five years.

As IJCP pointedly relates, Banacol is not just the successor to the Colombian fruit business of the Chiquita subsidiary, but also to its business of propping up the death squads. And indeed, this was all by design. As IJCP’s report explains:

Chiquita put forward a ‘sales’ operation of the questionable Banadex to the transnational Banacol Marketing Corporation at a far below market price (fire sale). Banadex, a subsidiary of Chiquita that has worked in Colombia since 1989, was transferred to Banacol (Banacol Marking Corp. SA based in Panama), in the year 2004, just when the United States Justice Department gave notice of its investigations. (emphasis added).

IJCP further explains that Chiquita, which claimed to abandon its Colombian operations after the terrorist-payment scandal, entered into an agreement with Banacol through which Banacol would continue “to sell Chiquita pineapples and bananas at a particularly advantageous price for an initial period of eight years.”

IJCP, citing the Colombian Attorney General, explains that Banacol “continued paying millions between 2004 and 2007 to the security cooperatives that are facades for the self-defense groups” (aka, paramilitary death squads). IJCP states, “[t]hat is to say, it continued backing the trail of violence of its predecessor” to the tune of $3 billion – that on top of the 1.7 million which Chiquita admitted to. Citing former AUC paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, IJCP explains that other companies, including Dole and Del Monte, also financed the paramilitary groups that continue to plague the Colombian countryside.

The results of this support — beginning in the mid-1990’s when these banana companies began bankrolling the death squads, and continuing until the present time — have been horrifying. As IJCP details:

Paramilitaries, with the complicity and lack of action by the [U.S.-backed] 17th Brigade and Uraba Police, assassinate, disappear, torture and displace local inhabitants, while claiming to fight the guerilla. Businessmen associated with these criminal structures appropriate the territories that traditionally belong to the Afro-descendant communities; authorities at the service of the businessmen try to legalize this fraudulent land-grab; and the national government supports more than 95% of the illegal investment. This leads to oil palm agribusiness being implemented on the ruins of the communities’ homes, cemeteries and communal areas. It provides the foundation for large-scale cattle ranching and transnational plantain, banana, pineapple and cassava production, which are all increasing at the hands of the paramilitaries. These violent structures see the opportunity to expand the agricultural production onto the high quality soil, which will gradually replace the depleted soils of Antioquian Uraba. The paramilitaries also see the opportunity in these territories due to their demonstrated reserves of gold, copper, molybdenum and other minerals and for the opportunities to construct infrastructure for exportation.

In its mere 20-page report, IJCP does more to give the concerned reader an avenue for protest and action than in the bulky HRW report of nine times its size. If one wishes to help the largest IDP community in the world reclaim its land, one can start by protesting such companies as Chiquita, Banacol, Del Monte and Dole. One can also pressure the U.S. Justice Department to do its job in bringing these companies to justice for their crimes, and in disgorging these companies of all of their profits for the years in which they have funded death squads – funds which can be used to compensate the thousands of victims of their malfeasance.

Daniel Kovalik teaches international human rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Notes.

[1] See, http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/colombia0913webwcover.pdf

[2] See, http://www.hrw.org/node/76172

[3] See, http://www.tni.org/sites/www.tni.org/files/download/banacolcasestudy.pdf