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Monday, March 26, 2007

Chiquita's Colombian Payments: Were Child Combatants Paid With Banana Co.'s Cash?

CINCINNATI ((TDB) -- Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2003 that said the Colombian terrorist group AUC recruited children as paramilitary fighters, and estimated 20% of its force was under age 18. Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International admits paying the paramilitary for protection, and pleaded guilty last week to federal charges it dealt illegally with a terrorist organization. Human Rights Watch said AUC's "spectacular growth" as a Colombian military was due, in part, to its use of child combatants.

All of the details of the Justice Department's criminal investigation have not been made public. Chiquita's guilty plea and agreement to pay a $25 million penalty avoided a criminal trial. But the existence of the Human Rights Watch report seems to raise the sordid episode to a whole new level. It doesn't mention Chiquita, but it does mention child combatants. That could mean an Ohio company paid off a violent, armed organization in Latin America that depended on kids as warriors, and used kids to increase its strength as a renegade military power. Perhaps Congress should hold hearings. If an American corporation helped finance an army built on children, the American people deserve to know. If not, the hearings could clear the air.

Below is an excerpt from the HRC's report on AUC and child combatants in Colombia:

Paramilitary Forces

"In 1996, Castaño told Human Rights Watch that he commanded 2,000 armed and trained fighters, an affirmation that was confirmed by Colombian government analysts.
49 By 2002, he claimed 11,200 fighters, more than a five-fold increase in just four years.50

"The AUC's spectacular growth is in part due to the recruitment of children tempted by AUC salaries, ranging between 900,000 and 1,200,000 pesos (approximately US $366 to $488) every three months, the frequency many children reported to Human Rights Watch that they were paid.

"Some AUC affiliates have held aggressive recruiting drives that include forcible enlistment. In May 2000, for example, the Southern Casanare Peasant Self-Defense Group was reported to have distributed leaflets calling up young people for 'compulsory military service.' In October 2000, paramilitaries belonging to this group abducted several youths in Puerto Gaitán, Meta, for military training.
51 The same group has been alleged responsible for abducting young women for sexual purposes.52 None of the former AUC child combatants interviewed by Human Rights Watch claimed that they were forcibly recruited, however.

"In September 2001, the U.S. State Department put the AUC on its official list of foreign terrorist organizations, where it joined the FARC-EP and the UC-ELN, which had been named previously.
53 (The designation requires, among other things, that U.S. banks freeze the accounts of the AUC and its agents.) What followed was a serious shakeup. Within the year, Carlos Castaño and at least two other paramilitaries were indicted in the United States on drug-trafficking charges.54 Castaño announced the dissolution of the AUC, but then claimed the coalition had reunited, albeit prey to divisions over drug-trafficking, a practice that Castaño said he opposed.55

"As part of a mea culpa, Castaño has admitted publicly that profits from drug-trafficking have financed the AUC, a practice he has said he would end.
56 Some of the paramilitary groups most implicated in drug-trafficking, such as the Central Bolívar Block (Bloque Central Bolívar, BCB), initially rejected this offer, but later said they would honor Castaño's decision.57

"In an apparent effort to gain political respectability and status as a possible interlocutor in future peace negotiations, the new-style AUC said it would avoid not only involvement in drugs, but also massacres, 'disappearances,' kidnappings, and 'cruel practices' in the future. It would 'respect international humanitarian law to the extent possible in this kind of war.'

"On November 29, 2002, Castaño sent an open letter to President Uribe announcing that the AUC would cease hostilities unilaterally and indefinitely from December 1 and declaring his readiness to begin negotiations with the government about the terms of a future demobilization. The letter warned, however, that should the guerrillas enter paramilitary-controlled territory, the AUC would exercise its 'right to legitimate defense.' Castaño offered to hand over immediately to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative child combatants who had been 'liberated by the self-defense groups from the guerrilla forces.'

"A day later, two of the dissident paramilitary groups, the BCB and the Conquerors of Arauca (Vencedores de Arauca), announced a ceasefire beginning December 5. That day, the BCB handed over nineteen child combatants, aged fifteen to seventeen, to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Public Advocate's office, and the ICBF.
60 One of the BCB commanders announced that the group would cease to recruit children and would surrender others still in its ranks.61 In June 2003, the BCB followed up by releasing forty fighters--thirty-eight boys and two girls--to authorities.62
That same month, a paramilitary group calling itself the Self-Defense Group of Meta and Vichada (Autodefensas de Meta y Vichada) claimed that soldiers belonging to the army's Seventh Brigade attacked a unit preparing to release child combatants to UNICEF and the ICBF. Eleven paramilitaries reportedly died.
63 The office of Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace confirmed that a release of child combatants had been discussed with the group and was imminent. The army denied, however, that its soldiers had killed children.64 An investigation by the office of the coroner concluded that the dead were all adults, and the paramilitary group later acknowledged that its initial allegations were incorrect.65"

"One of the longest-serving paramilitaries we interviewed, a lanky boy named Uriel, told Human Rights Watch that he had lived in a paramilitary camp in the Montes de María region of the department of Sucre. He said that there were about 200 people in the camp, some sixty of whom were children, including some as young as six.
66 Another former paramilitary, Óscar, who joined the AUC when he was twelve, said that nearly half of the 800 trainees at his camp were children.67

"Leonel, who was fourteen when he joined the paramilitaries, said that there were another fifty children at the training camp he attended in the department of Valle del Cauca, but he insisted that the paramilitaries didn't train many children. 'In fact, they didn't want me because I was a minor," he said. "They only accepted me as a favor to my contacts.'
68 "

"The AUC has not released any data regarding the number of children in its ranks. However, based on the information available, Human Rights Watch believes that the proportion of children in the ranks of paramilitary forces is somewhat less than in guerrilla forces. Based on our research, we estimate that no more than 20 percent of AUC forces, including its urban cadres, are under eighteen, or 2,200 individuals."

Meanwhile, this is what the Justice Department said about AUC:

"Following the company's disclosure, the investigation leading to this prosecution developed evidence that for over six years – from sometime in 1997 through Feb. 4, 2004 – Chiquita paid money to the AUC in two regions of the Republic of Colombia where Chiquita had banana-producing operations: Urabá and Santa Marta. Chiquita made these payments through its wholly-owned Colombian subsidiary known as "Banadex." By 2003, Banadex was Chiquita's most profitable operation. Chiquita, through Banadex, paid the AUC nearly every month. In total, Chiquita made over 100 payments to the AUC amounting to over $1.7 million.Chiquita began paying the AUC following a meeting in 1997 between the then-leader of the AUC, Carlos Castaño, and a senior executive of Banadex. Castaño implied that failure to make the payments could result in physical harm to Banadex personnel and property. No later than September 2000, Chiquita's senior executives knew that the corporation was paying the AUC and that the AUC was a violent, paramilitary organization led by Carlos Castaño. Chiquita's payments to the AUC were reviewed and approved by senior executives of the corporation, including high-ranking officers, directors and employees."

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