[News] Holder, Chaquita and Colombia
news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Nov 19 12:16:51 EST 2008
November 19, 2008
Fronting for Paramilitaries
Holder, Chaquita and Colombia
By MARIO A. MURILLO
First the good news: We're two months away from
President George W. Bush's last full day in the
White House. The countdown for the end of the nightmare has begun in earnest.
Now the bad news: As Barack Obama puts together
his cabinet and eyes a slew of former Clinton
officials for key staff positions, it is becoming
ever more apparent that all those calls for
change coming from progressive circles in the
U.S. and abroad - have fallen on deaf ears.
Most striking, at least for the time being, is
the soon to be named position of the top law
enforcement official of the country. It looks
like the first African-American President will
appoint the first African-American attorney
general in the coming days, something that on the
surface looks like an advance, but should
actually sound alarm bells for anybody seeking
true change in the way things are done in
Washington, especially when it comes to bringing
corporate criminals to justice.
Although no final decision has been made, the New
York Times reports that the President-elect's
transition team has signaled to Eric H. Holder
Jr., a senior Clinton Justice Department
official, that he will be selected as the next
attorney general. Holder helped lead the team
that selected Sen. Joe Biden as Obama's VP choice.
Most news accounts about the pending appointment
seem to be limiting their criticism of Holder to
one of his final acts as President Bill Clinton's
deputy attorney general in 2001. At the time, on
the last day of Clinton's term, Holder apparently
said he was "neutral, leaning toward favorable"
for a presidential pardon for Marc Rich, the
wealthy commodities dealer whose ex-wife, Denise,
was a major donor to the Democratic Party.
Clinton's pardon of the tax-evading Rich was
criticized as politically motivated, leading to a
congressional investigation over the matter.
What is not being discussed too much, and was not
even mentioned in today's New York Times report,
is Holder's key role in defending Chiquita Brands
International in a notorious case relating to the
company's funneling money and weapons to the
United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC, the
right-wing paramilitary organization on the U.S.
State Department's own list of terrorist organizations.
In 2003, an Organization of American States
report showed that Chiquita's subsidiary in
Colombia, Banadex, had helped divert weapons and
ammunition, including thousands of AK-47s, from
Nicaraguan government stocks to the AUC. The AUC
very often in collaboration with units of the
U.S.-trained Armed Forces - is responsible for
hundreds of massacres of primarily peasants
throughout the Colombian countryside, including
in the banana-growing region of Urabá, where it
is believed that at least 4,000 people were
killed. Their systematic use of violence resulted
in the forced displacement of hundreds of
thousands of poor Colombians, a disproportionate
amount of those people being black or indigenous.
In 2004, Holder helped negotiate an agreement
with the Justice Department for Chiquita that
involved the fruit company's payment of
"protection money" to the AUC, in direct
violation of U.S. laws prohibiting this kind of
transaction. In the agreement brokered by Holder,
Chiquita officials pleaded guilty and agreed to
pay a fine of $25 million, to be paid over a
5-year period. However, not one Chiquita official
involved in the illegal transactions was forced
to serve time for a crime that others have paid
dearly for, mainly because they did not have the
kind of legal backing that Holder's team
provided. Holder continues to represent Chiquita
in the civil action, which grew out of this criminal case.
One of the arguments in defense of Chiquita's
criminal acts was that the company was being
strong-armed by thugs in Colombia, and that it
either had to make the payments, or close up shop
in the country, which would have resulted in the
loss of tens of millions of dollars in profits.
Chiquita officials even disclosed to the Justice
Department that they were making the illegal
payments to the AUC, to see what could be done.
As the Washington Post reported back in 2007,
Federal prosecutors had said in court papers that
Justice Department officials made clear in April
2003 that Chiquita was clearly violating the law
and that "the payments . . . could not
continue."1 The Post reported "lawyers at Justice
headquarters and the U.S. attorney's office in
Washington were incensed by what they considered
the flagrant continuation of these payoffs,
despite the warnings." At the time, Holder said
he was concerned that company leaders who
disclosed the corporation's illegal activity to
prosecutors were facing the possibility of prosecution.
"If what you want to encourage is voluntary
self-disclosure, what message does this send to
other companies?" asked Holder, deputy attorney
general in the Clinton administration. "Here's a
company that voluntarily self-discloses in a
national security context, where the company gets
treated pretty harshly, [and] then on top of
that, you go after individuals who made a really painful decision."2
So in Holder's view, we should feel sympathy for
these poor corporate executives, whose identities
were kept confidential, and who were forced to
make "very painful decisions" about opening up to
their own criminality. Never mind that this
company was complicit in the above-mentioned
human tragedy waged by the AUC. The many victims
of this paramilitary terror did not even cross
the mind of the well-connected defense attorney
now being considered for the Attorney General job.
Yet the opposition to Holder's nomination to the
top position at Justice should not stop with this
sordid history, one that perhaps can be excused
as the obligation of a lawyer to defend his or
her client regardless of the alleged crime. The
disappointment in Obama's pick for AG should stem
from the President-elect's strong words during
the campaign in defense of human rights,
particularly for those of workers in Colombia. On
several occasions, including in the last
presidential debate held at Hofstra University
just three weeks before the election, the
Democratic Candidate said he opposed the
U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement precisely on
the grounds of the human rights violations
carried out consistently against trade unionists
in Colombia, and the ongoing impunity that has
followed in most of those crimes.
This is directly connected to the Holder
nomination because currently, there is a lawsuit
underway from the families of 173 banana workers,
who were killed by one of these paramilitary
groups in Colombia. These family members do not
buy into the argument, made by people like Holder
and his Chiquita clients, that the company was
forced to make these illegal payments to the AUC.
Their claim is that Chiquita Brands International
deliberately hired these armed thugs specifically
to repress the rights of these workers, a tool
used by other major multinationals operating in
Colombian hot spots, including Coca Cola, BP, and the Drummond Corporation.
As Dan Kovalik recently wrote in the Huffington
Post, the major concern that emerges with a
Justice Department led by Holder is that none of
these allegations will ever be fully
investigated. Kovalik points to the Human Rights
Watch report entitled, "Breaking the Grip?
Obstacles to Justice for Paramilitary Mafias in
Colombia," where the organization recommends that,
"in order to assist with the process of ending
the ties between the Colombian government and
paramilitary death squads, the U.S. Department of
Justice should, among other things, "[c]reate
meaningful legal incentives for paramilitary
leaders [a number of whom have already been
extradited to the U.S.] to fully disclose
information about atrocities and name all
Colombian or foreign officials, business or
individuals who may have facilitated their
criminal activities," and "[c]ollaborate actively
with the efforts of Colombian justice officials
who are investigating paramilitary networks in
Colombia by sharing relevant information possible
and granting them access to paramilitary leaders in U.S. custody."3
Will this recommendation be carried out by a
Justice Department led by the man who defended
one of the most visible protagonists in these
crimes? If the Obama Administration is seriously
concerned about impunity and human rights in
Colombia, Holder should probably step out of the way immediately.
Furthermore, and as Kovalik pointed out in his
Huffington Post commentary, one of the most
notorious paramilitary leaders currently in U.S.
federal custody, Salvatore Mancuso, claims that
he has extensive knowledge, not only about
Chiquita's relationship with paramilitary death
squads in Colombia, but with other major firms
such as Dole and Del Monte. None of these firms
are even on the radar screen of the Justice
Department, and the question is whether or not
they will be should Holder be appointed the next
Attorney General. My assumption is that it is not
a priority for Obama, certainly not for Holder.
The calls for change in Washington's relationship
with Latin America are coming from both within
the United States and throughout the continent.
There was no doubt that here in Colombia, people
were relieved to hear of Barack Obama's historic
victory on November 4th. Given his public
denunciations of the murders of hundreds of union
leaders in Colombia, and his interesting life
story which points to at least somewhat of a
distinct international perspective, it was not
surprising to hear car horns go off in the
streets of some towns when he was declared the winner on election night.
But it now seems like business as usual in
Washington, where corporate criminality is not a
major priority, and justice is only an empty
promise made on the backs of the victims of these
crimes, directed mainly at gullible voters before elections.
We cannot let this happen.
1 The Washington Post, "In Terrorism-Law Case,
Chiquita Points to U.S.," by Carol D. Leonnig,
Thursday, August 2, 2007; Page A01.
Mario A. Murillo is associate professor of
Communication at Hofstra University in New York
and author of
and the United states: War, Unrest and
Destabilization. He is currently living in
Colombia working on a book about the indigenous
movement and its uses of communications media. He
can be reached through his <http://mamaradio.blogspot.com/>website.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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