Slap on the Wrist for Corporate Sponsors of Terrorism

Less than two weeks after 9/11, President George W. Bush and Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill held a joint press conference to announce that the war on terror would not only target terrorist groups, but also those who fund terrorism. Bush declared, “If you do business with terrorists, if you support or sponsor them, you will not do business with the United States of America.” O’Neill followed Bush to the podium and announced, “We will succeed in starving the terrorists of funding and shutting down the institutions that support or facilitate terrorism.” And yet, despite these grandiose declarations, Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International evidently will not be shut down and will continue to do business in the United States despite pleading guilty last week to providing more than $1.7 million in funding over seven years to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing group on the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Chiquita pleaded guilty to one count of doing business with a terrorist group and agreed to pay a fine of $25 million. Under the agreement, none of the company’s executives will face criminal charges. Between 1997 and February 2004, Chiquita made more than 100 payments to the AUC, including over 50 payments totaling more than $850,000 after the State Department designated the paramilitary group a terrorist organization in September 2001. Prior to 1997, Chiquita had made payments to Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but that was before it was labeled a terrorist organization by the State Department.

Company officials met with AUC leader Carlos Castaño in 1997 and the paramilitary leader told them that he intended to drive the FARC from the Urabá region of Colombia and requested payments from Chiquita to fund his operations. Initially, the company made the payments by check, but following the AUC’s inclusion on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations Chiquita switched to paying the paramilitaries in cash. According to court documents, the payments to the AUC were reviewed and approved by eight top executives at the company. Furthermore, the executives continued to authorize the payments even after outside legal counsel had told them that the funding was illegal and should be stopped immediately.

Following the guilty plea, Chiquita’s Chief Executive Officer Fernando Aguirre announced, “The agreement reached with the [Department of Justice] today is in the best interests of the company.” It is also in the best interests of company executives who for some reason are not facing criminal charges for funding terrorism.

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe has responded to calls from opposition lawmakers and is now considering requesting the extradition of Chiquita executives to stand trial in Colombia. “Extradition should be from here to there and from there to here,” said Uribe in reference to the Chiquita case and the fact that his government sends hundreds of Colombians every year to the United States to stand trial on drug trafficking charges.

It is doubtful that the Bush administration would consider sending US corporate executives to stand trial in Colombia even though their funding of the AUC undoubtedly contributed to the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of civilians in that country. If the Bush administration had any interest in living up to its bold announcements that it was serious about targeting those who fund terrorism then the Chiquita executives would already be in a US prison.

Questions have also been raised about the Bush administration’s role in the company’s payments to the AUC. Court documents revealed that Chiquita told the US Justice Department about the payments in 2003 and then continued to fund the paramilitary group for another ten months with the full knowledge of the Bush administration. Colombian Senator Jorge Robledo of the opposition Polo Democratico has asked, “How much more does the US government know about payments to the paramilitaries?” Opposition legislators in Colombia have also called for the re-opening of an illegal arms trafficking case in which Israeli arms dealers smuggled 3,000 rifles and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition into the country through Chiquita’s port facility for delivery to the AUC in November 2001.

In sharp contrast to the Bush administration’s failure to levy criminal charges against Chiquita executives, Denmark’s government announced last week that it had charged seven workers from a local clothing company with funding terrorism because they pledged a portion of the company’s profits from tee-shirt sales to support the radio station of the FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. Even though no money was actually transferred to the FARC—and even if it had been, the amount would have paled in comparison to the $1.7 million Chiquita paid to the AUC—the seven Danes face up to six years in prison solely for their intent to send funds to a group on the EU’s list of terrorist organizations.

The Bush administration’s proverbial slap on the wrist of a US corporation that provided substantial funding to a group listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization raises serious questions about who is truly being targeted in the war on terror. Evidently, Chiquita’s claims that it was only protecting its operations and employees justified its funding of terrorism in the eyes of the Bush administration.

Indeed, this case appears to set a legal precedent for other US corporations and their executives that are funding, or that decide in the future to fund, terrorist groups. If corporate executives determine that the profits earned sufficiently exceed the likely fine, then it makes good business sense to fund terrorism. In Chiquita’s case, the $25 million fine amounts to a relatively small portion of the more than $200 million in profits that the company has earned since the AUC was designated a terrorist organization in 2001. Chiquita’s fine also amounts to less than half of the $51.5 million that the company pocketed from the 2004 sale of its Colombian subsidiary, Banadex.

On the other hand, if an independent US journalist such as myself paid the FARC $1.7 million to ensure my safety while working in rebel-controlled regions, it is difficult to believe that my punishment would only be a fine that amounted to a small portion of my earnings over the past five years. There is little doubt in my mind that I would be charged with funding terrorism and locked away for a good number of years. The Chiquita case is further confirmation that the Bush administration is not a government of the people, but a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.

 

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