Dec 02

After President-Elect Obama revealed that Eric Holder would be his choice for attorney-general, several observers raised questions about the nominee’s role as a private lawyer defending Chiquita Brands, the U.S. fruit company. Holder helped Chiquita negotiate a plea agreement with the Justice Department for the years of payoffs that the company made to paramilitary groups in a part of Colombia where the right-wing militias massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians.

Hofstra University’s Mario Murillo, writing for CounterPunch: “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. … If the Obama Administration is seriously concerned about impunity and human rights in Colombia, Holder should probably step out of the way immediately.”

Dan Kovalik of the U.S. Steelworkers’ Union, writing in the Huffington Post: “Eric Holder would have a troubling conflict of interest in carrying out this work in light of his current work as defense lawyer for Chiquita Brands international. … Holder himself, using his influence as former deputy attorney general under the Clinton Administration, helped to negotiate Chiquita’s sweeheart deal with the Justice Department in the criminal case against Chiquita.”

Jason Glaser, writing in the Guardian: “Does Holder represent the change we need and the change we were promised? It is time that someone who chooses to represent and serve human beings over corporations holds the position of attorney general.”

    The story here is that after the Clinton administration drew to a close Holder, a former Clinton assistant attorney-general, went into private practice at the Covington and Burling law firm, where his clients included Chiquita. In 2003, Holder led the legal team that advised the fruit company to admit to the U.S. Justice Department that it had been making payments to the murderous United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) since 1997 – a relationship that started out as “protection” money but went on way too long. The payments, which finally stopped in 2004, totaled about US$1.7 million to a group that, as of September 10, 2001, was on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

    Oddly, as the Washington Post has reported, despite the terrorism link Holder and Chiquita at first had difficulty even getting a response out of Assistant Attorney-General Michael Chertoff, who would later go on to be the Bush administration’s Homeland Security secretary.

    Eventually, though, with Holder’s assistance Chiquita and the Justice Department came to an agreement in which the fruit company would pay a $25 million fine – the price of the company’s sale of Banadex, its Colombian subsidiary – for having made payments to a foreign terrorist organization. The fine’s proceeds went to the U.S. Treasury.

    There is a widespread perception that Chiquita’s punishment was quite lenient given the link with a terrorist group responsible for mass murder. Notably, the Justice Department indictment makes no mention of a potentially more serious charge, documented in a 2003 OAS investigation: that Chiquita’s Colombian subsidiary helped run weapons and ammunition from Nicaragua to the AUC.

    How can we characterize the attorney-general-designate’s role? On one hand, Holder’s actions were commendable. Upon discovering that his client had broken the law, he advised it to go to the U.S. authorities. Notably, no other fruit company operating in northwestern Colombia’s conflictive Urabá region – and there are several – has come forward to admit to paying off armed groups. (It seems absurd that Chiquita would be the only one, and indeed demobilizing paramilitary leaders – including Salvatore Mancuso in a May 2008 60 Minutes interview – have alleged that they took payments from other companies in Urabá.)

    Writing for Salon, Glenn Greenwald meanwhile makes the point that Holder should not be criticized for defending for a client, since all accused people have the right to defense counsel.

    Attempts to criticize a lawyer for representing unsavory or even evil clients are inherently illegitimate and wrong — period. Anybody who believes in core liberties should want even the most culpable parties to have zealous representation before the Government can impose punishments or other sanctions. Lawyers who defend even the worst parties are performing a vital service for our justice system. Holder is no more tainted by his defense of Chiquita than lawyers who defend accused terrorists at Guantanamo are tainted by that.

    This is true, and Holder’s defense of Chiquita should not disqualify him from serving as the Obama administration’s attorney-general.

    Nonetheless, there are questions about Holder’s role that the Senate Judiciary Committee should explore before deciding on his nomination.

    • Did Holder benefit from his contacts with former colleagues at the Justice Department in a way that allowed him to achieve a more lenient plea agreement than would have been possible for a less well-connected attorney?
    • What role has Holder played in defending Chiquita from a class-action lawsuit filed in 2007 by 173 victims of paramilitary violence in the Urabá region? Has he advised his client to refuse any and all demands for restitution or reparations to victims? If so, how did he justify this position?
    • In general, does Holder personally believe that U.S. corporations that do direct or indirect harm to citizens of a foreign country need not be held accountable to those citizens?

    It will be difficult to get a definitive answer to any of these questions, and in fact the answer to all of them may be “no.”

    Still, the U.S. Justice Department is likely to be dealing with Colombian paramilitary groups in several contexts, including possible future actions against U.S. corporations that may have aided them, and of course the criminal cases against fifteen extradited paramilitary leaders in U.S. custody since May of this year.

    In private practice, Holder sought to downplay the severity of his client’s funding of Colombia’s paramilitaries and perhaps sought to prevent or minimize reparations to victims. As attorney-general, however, Holder can do great harm to U.S. credibility in Colombia and Latin America if he is perceived to be throwing obstacles in the way of the paramilitaries’ victims’ rights to truth and reparations. Because of his past work with Chiquita, his Justice Department’s actions with regard to future paramilitary cases will deserve extremely close scrutiny.

    Oct 08

    Here, thanks to an excellent translation from CIP Intern Anthony Dest, is the text of an article that appeared this weekend in the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. It summarizes the “Justice and Peace” testimony of Raúl Hasbún, a shadowy businessman and paramilitary leader who was a key player in the AUC’s bloody late-1990s expansion in the northwestern region of Urabá. Hasbún was the key connection for the payments that Chiquita Brands, the U.S. fruit company, admitted making to the paramilitaries.

    Perhaps most striking about this article is how thoroughly it confirms what Colombia’s human-rights defenders were alleging at the time about paramilitary ties with the military, local government and the regional business establishment. At the time, of course, those allegations were fiercely denied by all involved.

    Hasbún’s Confessions

    The businessman turned paramilitary boss told the attorney general’s office revealing secrets about a gruesome chapter in the history of Urabá, Colombia’s banana growing region.

    The day that Raúl Hasbún arrived at the office of Pedro Juan Moreno, the government secretary of the then governor of Antioquia, Álvaro Uribe, he left with more than he expected. Hasbún, a businessman in the banana industry, relayed to Moreno the interest of various Urabá land-owning farmers in creating a government-sponsored surveillance cooperative, a “CONVIVIR,” in the region. Moreno, however, told him not to create just one, but twelve. In a few months, Urabá had twelve CONVIVIR units that consisted of 150 people, 800 radios, cars, and weapons.

    Throughout the mid-1990s CONVIVIR had the support of the national government. The issue was, however, that Hasbún was not only the owner of banana plantations and extensive cattle ranches, but he had also become commander ‘Pedro Ponte’ of the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU).

    In his own “Justice and Peace” confession (which began in July), he did not hesitate to admit to giving the order to kill people who ’smelled like guerrillas.’ Without blinking, he confessed to the San José de Apartadó massacre of 1998. He said he ordered the massacre because the town was so secluded, and the logistics of getting there were so difficult, that it wasn’t worth it to make an incursion just to kill one or two people. Therefore, in order to make the most out of the trip, they killed the largest amount of people that could possibly be associated with the FARC.

    How did the owner of more that 4,000 hectares of land become a criminal? According to him, he once tried to sell a farm, but no one wanted to buy it because there were so many guerrillas in Urabá. Disappointed because his wealth was diminishing and he was being extorted by the guerrillas, he searched for someone who could introduce him to Fidel Castaño, who already had a paramilitary group in Urabá, so that he could offer Castaño his help. He was soon invited to a farm where he met Carlos and Vicente Castaño. From that moment on he began to collaborate with the paramilitaries. Soon afterwards in 1996, the Castaño brothers put him in charge of a group of forty armed men.

    Without sacrificing the image of a respectable business man, Hasbún became the head of a bloody and ambitious paramilitary group that worked under the guide of Vicente Castaño. Hasbún used information that he gathered from CONVIVIR units for the purposes of the paramilitary group. He said that the twelve CONVIVIR groups in Urabá worked as a network. The information that they gathered was sent directly to him, as a paramilitary head, at the same time that it was sent to the military and police. The paramilitary groups generally carried out the operations because they had better resources. “On one occasion, the CONVIVIR gave the military the exact location of some guerrillas. When the military decided to act, two trucks were out of gas and one had a dead battery. As soon as they were about to leave, it turned out that they didn’t have radios. Finally, they decided not to carry out the operation.” According to Hasbún, the CONVIVIR paid for the military’s gas and allowed the police and DAS [the Colombian intelligence agency] to borrow cars and even radio transmitters. When intelligence was not able to arrest and try someone, the paramilitary groups would receive the information and immediately kill the person.

    This was all possible because the system that the paramilitaries had created made the CONVIVIR units incredibly rich. According to Hasbún, “[they] had a huge influx of money. Millions and millions of pesos.” Hasbún carried out every order that Vicente Castaño gave him, which guaranteed that all of the money that he took would either go to CONVIVIR or to the paramilitaries. Carlos Castaño had many meetings with companies working in the banana industry, and he was able to reach an agreement where the companies would pay CONVIVIR three percent of every box of bananas exported. This money was collected by the CONVIVIR in Papagayo, which was managed by Arnulfo Peñuela, who is now in prison for his relationship with the paramilitary groups. These payments continued until 2003 in cases such as that of Chiquita Brands, a company that has since recognized that it financed the paramilitary groups in Urabá this way. Even though Hasbún denies it, other paramilitary leaders assure that one of every three cents collected by the CONVIVIR went to the paramilitary groups.

    Hasbún insists that very few people in the banana industry knew of his double life as a businessman and a paramilitary, but people who lived in the region during that time period say otherwise. Everyone knew that Raúl Hasbún, owner of more than five farms and the legal representative of many units of the CONVIVIR, was ‘Pedro Ponte,’ commander of the paramilitary groups that ordered the murders and massacres that made Urabá the most violent region in the country.

    Continue reading »

    Jul 03

    CIP Intern Gareth Smail attended last Thursday’s House committee hearing on U.S. corporations’ dealings with armed groups in Colombia. Here are his notes.

    Though these notes are pretty detailed, here are some general observations that apply overall:

    • None of the representatives, even the Democrats, used language similar to that in the Appropriations Committee’s report on the Foreign Operations bill, which expresses “grave concerns” over the current Plan Colombia assistance package and calls for the U.S. government to rethink security-oriented aid. Instead, the subcommittee members generally thanked President Uribe for progress and refused to criticize his security policy.
    • Despite this consensus, the subcommittee members still managed to find room for partisan bickering. Both Democrats and Republicans balked at the “double standards” of the other side. Human rights abuses could barely be mentioned without a quip about Venezuela or Cuba. Toward the end, Chairman Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Massachusetts) tried to back Rep. Connie Mack (R-Florida) into saying he would support the extradition of U.S. executives to Colombia.
    • Mr. Kovalik, Mr. Guzman, and Mr. Ramirez had difficulty getting their messages across. Mr. Guzman and Mr. Ramirez relied on a translator and were unable to express their arguments against the questioning the subcommittee’s Republicans. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) undercut Mr. Kovalik by holding up a picture of him with a poster of Che Guevara in his office. The subcommittee members were more attentive to the testimony of Ms. McFarland and Ambassador Reich.
    • In the end, the specific cases of Drummond and Chiquita were left unresolved. With just a few exceptions, both sides (and particularly the Republicans) used this debate to focus on the general relationship between U.S. corporations and security abroad, instead of these cases’ specific policy implications.

    Hearing notes
    Rayburn 2172

    Hearing of the International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs: “The problems of U.S. companies in Colombia.”

    Opening Statements
    Chairman Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Massachusetts):

    • This meeting is to hear evidence regarding allegations that Chiquita Banana and Drummond Coal participated in terrorist activities in Colombia.
      • Chiquita Banana and Drummond Coal will be invited to represent themselves before the subcommittee at a later date. Continue reading »