[News] Holder, Chaquita and Colombia

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Nov 19 12:16:51 EST 2008


November 19, 2008

Fronting for Paramilitaries

Holder, Chaquita and Colombia


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.

2 Ibid.


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.

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