By W. T. Whitney, Jr.

June 24, 2024

 

As it has spread from industrialized countries, capitalism has extended its tentacles by means of enslavement, die-offs, wars, plunder, and thugs. Colombia has specialized in thugs since the 1970s. Paramilitaries, shock troops for Colombia’s rich and powerful, are an arm of the official military, and a recent court decision in the United States has provoked questions about the paramilitaries’ future and about official U.S. reactions.

A trial jury in the U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, Fla., determined on 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.

Attorneys for Chiquita plan to appeal the decision, but for now the ruling orders the company to 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, opposing leftist guerrillas, and enforcing company dictates against individual workers. With Chiquita’s 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.

Repeat offender

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 was spared, however, having 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 and decided to pursue two “bellwether cases.” Favorable decisions would enable litigation to proceed on behalf of the other families. The case decided in West Palm Beach was the first; the second one opens on July 15.

Other companies also have a long history of funding 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, and that distributors 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 the Coca-Cola company on charges it contracted with paramilitaries to kill nine unionists during the period 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. With a presence in 70c ountries, Chiquita recently registered $7.59 billion in yearly revenue.

The original banana bosses

UFC, Chiquita’s parent and mentor, once claimed 42% of Guatemala’s national territory as its property. 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, killing more than 1,000 – all under a pretext of “Communist agitation.”

In a poignant reminder almost a century later, on June 12, 2024, “5,000 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 began 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.

Paramilitarism: The politics of the oligarchy

Human rights leader Sonia Milena López, speaking at a recent 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 when there are… accusations or evidence of connivance or lack of effective action against the paramilitaries.”

In an interview, Esteban Romero, spokesperson for the Congress of the Peoples, 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. With close ties between paramilitaries and the military, however, that possibility seems unlikely.

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.”

As it has been for the better part of a century, the fight against the power of capitalists and their hired guns remains an international one – a struggle requiring solidarity across borders.

 

-W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.

 

-This article first appeared in the People’s World.