In a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), on Mar. 14, 2007 Chiquita Brands International agreed to pay a $25 million fine after admitting it paid terrorists for protection in a dangerous region of Colombia. The payments, made between 1997 and 2004, continued despite the company’s knowledge that they were illegal. The company was allowed to continue profitable production during the investigation. The U.S. government’s action is inconsistent with standards and procedure used against charities, which have had their assets seized and frozen while investigations are pending. Six U.S. charities have been shut down on the basis of much less evidence than the direct payments to which Chiquita admitted. The Chiquita fine is unlikely to affect its operations, as the company has annual revenues of approximately $4.5 billion.
The Cincinnati-based company paid approximately $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and also made payments to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), both U.S. designated terrorist organizations. The government’s designation of AUC as a terrorist organization made it illegal for anyone in the U.S. “to knowingly provide material support, including currency and monetary instruments” to such organizations. According to a Wall Street Journal report in 2003, outside attorneys for Chiquita notified the company that the payments violated U.S. anti-terrorism laws and should not continue. However, payments to the groups continued until Chiquita sold its subsidiary, Banadex, in June 2004.
The company reported the $25 million plea agreement to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The SEC filing stated, “In 2003, Chiquita voluntarily disclosed to the Department of Justice that its former banana-producing subsidiary had been forced to make payments to right- and left-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia to protect the lives of its employees. The company made this disclosure shortly after senior management became aware that these groups had been designated as foreign terrorist organizations under a U.S. statute that makes it a crime to make payments to such organizations.”
DOJ’s “slap on the wrist” approach exhibits clearly unequal enforcement of anti-terrorist financing laws. In contrast to the direct funding Chiquita paid AUC, no significant evidence of terror financing by U.S.-based charities has been found. Instead, questionable evidence was used to shut down the largest U.S.-based Muslim charities, including the Holy Land Foundation.