Colombian Paramilitaries Encounter Adverse US Court Decision and People’s Resistance

Photograph Source: IPCoficial – CC BY 3.0

Other than in industrial countries, capitalism has worked its way through enslavement, die-offs, wars, plunder, and thugs. Colombia specializes in thugs, since the 1970s. Paramilitaries, shock troops for Colombia’s rich and powerful, are an arm of Colombia’s military. A recent court decision in the United States provokes questions about the future of Colombia’s paramilitaries and about official U.S. reactions.

A trial jury in the U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, Florida, determined June 10 that Chiquita Brands, formerly the United Fruit Corporation (UFC), was guilty of financially supporting the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The paramilitary band has operated since the 1980s in Colombia’s northern banana-producing regions. The decision will be appealed.

Chiquita will pay $38.3 million to 16 family members of eight individuals murdered by the AUC paramilitaries. Chiquita had supplied them with arms and ammunition.  

According to EarthRights, whose lawyers managed the case, “Chiquita knowingly financed the AUC, a designated terrorist organization, [as per the U.S. State Department], in pursuit of profit …These families, victimized by armed groups and corporations, asserted their power and prevailed in the judicial process.” No U.S. corporation has previously been punished for committing human rights abuses abroad

Testimony indicated AUC paramilitaries were active in suppressing labor activism, fighting leftist guerrillas, and enforcing company dictates against individual workers. With Chiquita support, “the paramilitaries successively extended their power in the region … by means of assassinations, disappearing people, and displacing thousands of them,” according to a report.

The court’s ruling comes 17 years after Chiquita, in a 2007 plea-bargain agreement, acknowledged guilt in violating U.S. law prohibiting financial support for terrorist organizations. Acknowledging payments of $1.7 million to AUC paramilitaries for “security services” from 1997 to 2004,” Chiquita paid a $25 million fine. The company did not have to reveal the identity of company executives approving the illegal payments.

Subsequently hundreds of claims against Chiquita descended on courts in Colombia. To secure relief for the victims’ families in U.S. courts, lawyers led by Terrence Collingwood, who represented 173 families, consolidated claims against Chiquita; they would pursue two “bellwether cases.” Favorable decisions would enable litigation to proceed on behalf of the other families. The second case opens on July 15.

Many companies have funded Colombian paramilitaries. A recent report indicates, that Ecopetrol, Colombia’s largest oil company paid paramilitaries up to 5% of the value of contracts it signed, that Bavaria brewery delivered to paramilitaries a portion of every dollar generated from sales along Colombia’s northern coast, that distributers associated with Postobón, Colombia’s largest beverage company, gave paramilitaries boxes of bottled drinks to be sold for cash.

Only because the crimes occurred outside the United States did a U.S. court acquit Coca Cola company on charges it contracted with paramilitaries to kill nine unionists in 1990-2002. Drummond coal-mining company, based in Alabama, beat back well-founded charges tried in a U.S. court that it paid paramilitaries to assassinate three labor leaders between 1996 and 2001. Del Monte and Dole food companies were charged in Colombian courts with “financing right-wing paramilitary groups,” according to a 2017 report.

With their own railroads, seaports, and ships, United Fruit Company and its offspring Chiquita have operated banana plantations in Panama, Colombia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Guatemala. Chiquita with a presence in 70 countries recently registered $7.59 billion in yearly revenue.

UFC, Chiquita’s parent and mentor, once claimed 42% of Nicaragua’s national territory. Agrarian reform impinging on UFC holdings there led to a CIA-mediated U.S. coup in 1954 that removed the left-leaning government of President Jacobo Árbenz.

In 1928 near Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, banana workers were on strike. UFC called upon an obliging Colombian government to send in troops. They machine-gunned strikers and their families. More than 1000 died. The pretext was Communist agitation.

In a poignant reminder almost a century later, on June 12, 2024 “5000 or so people undertaking a civic strike outside of Santa Marta blocked the Caribbean Trunk Route,” National Highway 90. According to the report, “The communities were asking the government for solutions for violence dispossession, displacement, and lockdown in their areas at the hands of paramilitary groups.” The strike lasted three days.

Nationwide mobilization organized by the Congress of the Peoples had begun on June 4. Activists representing “small farmers, African-descendants, Indigenous peoples, and urban representatives of the diversity of the Colombian people” blockaded four big highways. In Bogotá, they occupied the Interior Ministry and the Vatican Embassy.

Human rights leader Sonia Milena López, speaking at a press conference, declared that, “Paramilitarism has been and is a politics of the oligarchy enabled by the Colombian state.” She outlined measures for dismantling paramilitarism.

The government, she insisted, must recognize “that a national paramilitary strategy at the rural and urban level does exist and is oriented toward developing a genocidal process aimed against the people’s movement.” It must abandon “any pretension of political recognition of paramilitary elements” or of negotiating with them.

She called for ‘investigating those who finance and direct [the paramilitaries], both state and private,” and for “removing …military officers where there are … accusations or evidence of connivance or lack of effective action against the paramilitaries.”

In an interview, Esteban Romero, spokesperson for the Congress, reported that paramilitaries are absorbing territory, displacing populations, and threatening and harassing social leaders.  He suggested progressive president Gustavo Petro lacks the power needed to undo “a Colombian political regime that is a paramilitarized regime, one that created private armies to contain social changes.”

Paramilitaries are dangerous, as recalled by analyst Luis Mangrane: “Between 1985 and 2018, the paramilitary groups were the principal agents responsible for the killings associated with armed conflict [between the FARC and the Colombian government], having accounted for 45% of the total of 205.028 victims. Through the ‘para-politics’ in the 2002 elections, they managed to coopt a third of the Congress.”

The paramilitaries’ base of support is strong, not least in the United States. There will be no new U.S. response to their actions, it seems, unless it is mediated through Colombia’s military. Insight is lacking, but that possibility seems unlikely what with close ties between the two entities

The association shows in a memo from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2001: “Colombia has five divisions in its army, but paramilitaries are so fully integrated into the army’s battle strategy, coordinated with its soldiers in the field, and linked to government units … that they effectively constitute a sixth division of the army.”

Colombia’s labor minister, Communist Party member Gloria Inés Ramírez reflects on the staying power of the paramilitaries. “[P]aramilitaries came to the fore within the framework of the development of contemporary capitalism … Colombian capitalism turns out to be a complex socio-economic synthesis between a traditionalist and pre-modern tendency around land concentration, on the one hand, and a modernizing tendency in capital accumulation, on the other. This synthesis favored the authoritarianism of the political regime, the increasing militarization of politics and the growing role of paramilitary organizations.”

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.