CBS’s Kroft: Chiquita Banana’s ‘Reputation Splattered in Blood’

Still Shot of Steve Kroft, May 11 On Sunday’s CBS "60 Minutes," Steve Kroft suggested that the American-based Chiquita Banana company was in league with Colombian terrorist groups after paying extortion money to such groups to protect its employees: "It made millions growing bananas there, only to emerge with its reputation splattered in blood, after acknowledging that it had paid nearly $2 million in protection money to a murderous paramilitary group that's killed or massacred thousands of people."

Kroft went on to portray the situation with Chiquita as only one example of a larger pattern of U.S. companies funding terrorism: "Now the Colombian government is talking about extraditing Chiquita executives to Colombia, and investigators in Bogota and on Capitol Hill are looking at other US companies that may have done the same thing."

Kroft later highlighted the murder of a 12-year-old boy by the paramilitary group that Chiquita made payments to: "...the paramilitaries arrived and murdered a 12-year-old boy whose only crime had been to announce their presence." Kroft also explained: "As the atrocities piled up all across the country, Chiquita continued to make the payments to the paramilitaries, viewing itself as a victim of the violence, not a facilitator."

Kroft later talked to attorney Terry Collingsworth, who "...has filed one of four separate lawsuits that have been filed against Chiquita, seeking money for the families of Colombians killed by the paramilitaries. He says the money Chiquita paid for seven years may have kept its employees safe, but it also helped buy weapons and ammunition that were killing other people." Kroft went on to ask: "Are you saying that Chiquita was complicit in these massacres that took place down there?" Collingsworth responded: "Absolutely. If you provide knowing substantial assistance to someone who then goes out and kills someone or terrorizes or tortures someone, you're also guilty."

Kroft then turned to current Chiquita CEO, Fernando Aguirre, and asked: "What did the company think this money was going to be used for?" When Aguirre replied, "Well, clearly to save lives," of Chiquita employees, Kroft responded: "It was also being used to kill other people...Do you feel that the company has any responsibility to compensate the victims of the paramilitaries in Colombia?"

By contrast Kroft was much easier on a former leader of the Colombian paramilitary group, Salvatore Mancuso, now in a maximum security prison, who was willing to name names in indicting Chiquita and other American companies:

KROFT: Was Chiquita the only American company that paid you?

MANCUSO: All companies in the banana region paid. For instance, there was Dole and Del Monte, which I believe are US companies.

KROFT: Both the Dole Food Company and Fresh Del Monte Produce, which is not affiliated with Del Monte Foods, have issues statements strongly denying that they made payments to the paramilitaries. Fresh Del Monte Produce says its Colombian operation is limited to a sales office which purchases bananas from independent growers. Dole and Del Monte say they never paid you any money.

MANCUSO: Chiquita has been honest by acknowledging the reality of the conflict and the payments that it made. The others also made payments, not only international companies, but also the national companies in the region.

KROFT: So you're saying Dole and Del Monte are lying?

MANCUSO: I'm saying they all paid.

Kroft felt Mancuso, who was also convicted of smuggling 17 tons of cocaine into the U.S., would make a very credible witness:

KROFT: Has anyone come down here from the United States, from the US Justice Department, to talk to you about Dole, or to talk to you about Del Monte or any other companies?

MANCUSO: No one has come from the Department of Justice of the United States to talk to us. I am taking this opportunity to invite the Department of State and the Department of Justice so that they can come and so I can tell them all that they want to know.

KROFT: And you would name names?

MANCUSO: Certainly, I would do so.

Earlier in the segment, Kroft also talked to Democratic Congressman William Delahunt: "There is also a congressional investigation, led by Representative William Delahunt of Massachusetts, who chairs a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. And you've been quoted as saying that Chiquita is the tip of the iceberg."

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

7:04PM SEGMENT:

STEVE KROFT: For American corporations, the rewards of doing business abroad are enormous. But so are the risks. And over the past 25 years, no place has been more perilous than Colombia, a country that is just beginning to emerge from the throes of civil war and narco-terrorism. Chiquita Brands International of Cincinnati, Ohio, found out the hard way. It made millions growing bananas there, only to emerge with its reputation splattered in blood, after acknowledging that it had paid nearly $2 million in protection money to a murderous paramilitary group that's killed or massacred thousands of people. Now the Colombian government is talking about extraditing Chiquita executives to Colombia, and investigators in Bogota and on Capitol Hill are looking at other US companies that may have done the same thing. From the air, the plains of the Uraba region are carpeted with the lush foliage of banana plantations, which have long provided a livelihood for the people of northern Colombia. And for the better part of a century, its best-known product has been the Chiquita banana. But since the 1980s, the business of bananas has been much less festive and punctuated with gunfire. First the area was taken over by Marxist guerillas called the FARC, who's ruthlessness at killing and kidnapping was exceeded only by the private, paramilitary army that rose up to fight them. Chiquita found itself trying to grow bananas in the middle of a war in which the Colombian government and its army was of no help.

FERNANDO AGUIRRE: These were lands where there was no law. It was impossible for the government to protect employees.

KROFT: Fernando Aguirre, who became Chiquita's CEO long after all this happened, says the company was forced to pay taxes to the guerrillas when they controlled the territory in the late '80s and early '90s; and when the paramilitaries, known as the AUC, moved in in 1997, they demanded the same thing.

AGUIRRE: It was a dilemma about having literally a gun pointed at your head, where you have someone who says, 'Either you pay me or I'm going to kill you, or I'm going to kill your employees.'

KROFT: Did the paramilitaries state, specifically to you, that if you didn't make the payments your people would be killed?

AGUIRRE: There was a very, very strong signal that if the company would not make payments, things would happen. And since they had already killed at least 50 people -- the employees of the company -- it was clear to everyone there that these guys meant business.

KROFT: Chiquita only had a couple of options, and none of them were particularly good. It could refuse to pay the paramilitaries and run the risk that its employees could be killed or kidnapped. It could pack up and leave the country altogether and abandon its most profitable enterprise. Or it could stay and pay protection, and in the process help finance the atrocities that were being committed all across the countryside.

AGUIRRE: These were extortion payments. Either you paid or your people get killed.

KROFT: And you decided to pay.

AGUIRRE: And the company decided to pay, absolutely.

KROFT: So you -- there was no doubt in your mind that these were very bad people.

AGUIRRE: Absolutely, absolutely. No doubt.

KROFT: Just how bad was already becoming evident. The paramilitaries, who were funded initially by large landowners and later by the cocaine trade, not only drove the Marxist guerillas from the area, they tried to eliminate anyone who might have leftist sympathies, from labor leaders to schoolteachers. Sometimes entire villages were wiped out in the most grisly fashion. Gloria Cuartas was the mayor of Apartado and witnessed much of it with her own eyes.

GLORIA CUARTAS: I was a mayor whose job was just to gather the dead.

KROFT: In 1996, she went to this school to talk to the children about the violence that surrounded them; and while she was there, the paramilitaries arrived and murdered a 12-year-old boy whose only crime had been to announce their presence.

CUARTAS: They cut off his head and threw the head at us. I went into a state of panic. They were there for four hours with their weapons, firing shots toward the ceiling. One hundred girls and boys were with me. The children did not scream. They were in shock.

KROFT: Did they say anything to you?

CUARTAS: No. Their language was death. Their message was that if they could do this to children, they could do it to me.

KROFT: As the atrocities piled up all across the country, Chiquita continued to make the payments to the paramilitaries, viewing itself as a victim of the violence, not a facilitator. But all of that changed in 2001, when the US government designated the paramilitary as a terrorist organization, making any kind of financial assistance to the group, coerced or otherwise, a felony. Yet Chiquita continued to make the payments for another two years, claiming it missed the government's announcement. It was in the newspapers. It was in the Cincinnati Enquirer, which is where your company headquarters is. It was in The New York Times. I mean, this is a big part of your business, doing business in Colombia. How did you miss it?

AGUIRRE: Well, again, I can't -- I don't know what I -- what happened during that time frame, frankly. What I know is all the data shows that the company, the moment it learned that these payments were illegal in the United States, that's when they decided to self-disclose to the Department of Justice.

KROFT: By "self-disclose," he means that Chiquita, on the advice of its attorneys, turned itself in to the Justice Department. And one of the first things Aguirre did when he became CEO was to stop the payments and sell the company's Colombian subsidiary. Last year, the company pled guilty to a felony and agreed to pay a $25 million fine. But that wasn't the end of its legal problems.

TERRY COLLINGSWORTH: This company has blood on its hands.

KROFT: Attorney Terry Collingsworth has filed one of four separate lawsuits that have been filed against Chiquita, seeking money for the families of Colombians killed by the paramilitaries. He says the money Chiquita paid for seven years may have kept its employees safe, but it also helped buy weapons and ammunition that were killing other people. Are you saying that Chiquita was complicit in these massacres that took place down there?

COLLINGSWORTH: Absolutely. If you provide knowing substantial assistance to someone who then goes out and kills someone or terrorizes or tortures someone, you're also guilty.

KROFT: And you believe that Chiquita knew that this money that they were paying was being used to go into the villages and massacre people?

COLLINGSWORTH: If they didn't, they would be the only ones in the whole country of Colombia who didn't think that.

KROFT: You're not saying that Chiquita wanted these people to be killed.

COLLINGSWORTH: No. They were indifferent to it. Instead of wanting those people dead, they were willing to accept that those people would be dead in order to keep their banana operation running profitably and making all the -- all the money that they did in Colombia.

KROFT: You think they should have just picked up and left?

COLLINGSWORTH: Yes.

KROFT: Alright.

AGUIRRE: It's easy for a lawyer to give that type of advice after the fact. When you have more than 3,500 workers, their lives depend on you. When you've been making payments to save their lives, you just can't pick up and go.

KROFT: What did the company think this money was going to be used for?

AGUIRRE: Well, clearly to save lives.

KROFT: The lives of your employees.

AGUIRRE: Absolutely.

KROFT: It was also being used to kill other people.

AGUIRRE: These groups were funded with hundreds of millions of dollars. They had the guns. They had the bullets. So I don't know who in their right mind would say, 'Well, if Chiquita would have stopped, these killings would have stopped.' I just don't see that happening.

KROFT: Do you feel that the company has any responsibility to compensate the victims of the paramilitaries in Colombia?

AGUIRRE: The responsibility of any murders are the responsibility of the people that made the killings, of the people who pulled the trigger.

KROFT: The Justice Department decided not to prosecute any corporate officers at Chiquita, which included prominent businessmen like former CEO Cyrus Freidheim Jr., now head of the Sun-Times Media Group, and board member Roderick Hills, a former Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The decision created a furor in Colombia. The country's prosecutor general said he would begin his own investigation and has threatened to extradite some of Chiquita's executives to stand trial in Columbia.

WILLIAM DELAHUNT: This hearing will come to order.

KROFT: There is also a congressional investigation, led by Representative William Delahunt of Massachusetts, who chairs a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. And you've been quoted as saying that Chiquita is the tip of the iceberg.

DELAHUNT: Right.

KROFT: What do you mean by that?

DELAHUNT: Well, I think that there are other American companies that are -- have conducted themselves the same way that Chiquita has, except they haven't been caught.

KROFT: How many companies?

DELAHUNT: Well, there are several.

KROFT: You want to share that with us?

DELAHUNT: No.

KROFT: Because?

DELAHUNT: Because I want to give those companies an opportunity to come before the committee.

KROFT: We did find one person who was willing to name names, inside this maximum security prison outside Medellin. Salvatore Mancuso was once the leader of the paramilitaries. Chiquita says the reason they paid the money was because your people would kill them if they didn't. Is that true?

SALVATORE MANCUSO: No, it is not true. They paid taxes because we were like a state in the area, and because we were providing them with protection which enabled them to continue making investments and a financial profit.

KROFT: What would have happened if the companies had not paid?

MANCUSO: The truth is, we never thought about what would happen because they did so willingly.

KROFT: Did they have a choice?

MANCUSO: Yes, they had a choice. They could go to the local police or army for protection from the guerillas, but the army and police at that time were barely able to protect themselves.

KROFT: Mancuso helped negotiate a deal with the Colombian government that allowed more than 30,000 paramilitaries to give up their arms and demobilize in return for reduced prison sentences. As part of the deal, the paramilitaries must truthfully confess to all crimes or face much harsher penalties. Was Chiquita the only American company that paid you?

MANCUSO: All companies in the banana region paid. For instance, there was Dole and Del Monte, which I believe are US companies.

KROFT: Both the Dole Food Company and Fresh Del Monte Produce, which is not affiliated with Del Monte Foods, have issues statements strongly denying that they made payments to the paramilitaries. Fresh Del Monte Produce says its Colombian operation is limited to a sales office which purchases bananas from independent growers. Dole and Del Monte say they never paid you any money.

MANCUSO: Chiquita has been honest by acknowledging the reality of the conflict and the payments that it made. The others also made payments, not only international companies, but also the national companies in the region.

KROFT: So you're saying Dole and Del Monte are lying?

MANCUSO: I'm saying they all paid.

KROFT: Mancuso has been indicted in the US for smuggling 17 tons of cocaine into the country. He says he's more than willing to tell US prosecutors anything they want to know. Has anyone come down here from the United States, from the US Justice Department, to talk to you about Dole, or to talk to you about Del Monte or any other companies?

MANCUSO: No one has come from the Department of Justice of the United States to talk to us. I am taking this opportunity to invite the Department of State and the Department of Justice so that they can come and so I can tell them all that they want to know.

KROFT: And you would name names?

MANCUSO: Certainly, I would do so.

KROFT: So far, the only company that's been charged with paying money to the terrorists in Colombia is the one that turned itself in. Do you think if you hadn't gone to the Justice Department and disclosed the situation that anything would have happened to you?

AGUIRRE: Mr. Kroft, if we hadn't gone to the Justice Department, we probably would not be here talking about this whole issue. No one would know about this.

KROFT: It should be noted that a number of things have changed in Colombia over the past few years. Besides demobilizing the paramilitaries, the Colombian government has made significant progress against the guerillas, and the army now controls much of the countryside.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC