Chiquita hit with witness issues in ongoing paramilitary financing case

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Chiquita hit with witness issues in ongoing paramilitary financing case

Resolution remains out of sight in a two-decade, multidistrict case involving Chiquita Brands and allegations over payments to a Colombian paramilitary group. This month, U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra dismissed three expert witnesses offered by both the banana company and plaintiffs.

The firm is accused of funding right-wing Colombian paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a group linked to the brutalizing of civilians during the late 90s and early 2000s.

As the case continues on in Florida, Judge Marra ruled on three of the 11 expert witnesses under challenge. 

Faculty co-chair of the Duke Human Rights Center Robin Kirk, who plaintiffs expected would testify about AUC's violence against civilians, was rejected by Marra as the witness failed to submit an expert report.

The two other rejected witnesses were presented by Chiquita and included private investigator Andrés Otero Leongómez and former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent David Gaddis.

Otero Leongómez was expected to discredit two former AUC commanders on the issue of whether Chiquita's payments to the paramilitary group were voluntary or the product of extortion. Judge Marra found that the witness lacked personal interactions with the two former AUC members.

As for Gaddis, Marra decided to limit his testimony to his expertise. Plaintiffs argued that Gaddis was unaware of Chiquita’s payments to AUC during his time at the DEA.

Related articles: Banana exporters charged in Colombia with financing paramilitary group

A 30-year engagement

The global banana company was found by the courts to have made several payments from 1997 to 2004 to AUC, listed as “security services”. Chiquita argued that said payments were, in fact, extortion in response to violent threats against workers and the firm’s property in Colombia.

AUC was officially declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2001. 

However, competing evidence presented by plaintiffs hopes to prove that the firm acted more out of material interest than self-preservation instinct. 

Through years of litigation, AUC has been found responsible for numerous attacks on civilians, as well as “retaliations” against workers' unions.

The central issue in the case is whether Chiquita “acted reasonably in dealing with the AUC and whether the payments made to AUC materially assisted the AUC in carrying out its illegal actions,” court documents stated.

The long-running case has hit multiple roadblocks. On March 30, Chiquita’s counsel filed an emergency motion regarding a webinar entitled “Truth about Chiquita,” which was advertised on EarthRights’ website.

EarthRights represents family members of trade unionists, banana workers, and social activists targeted by AUC. The group filed a class-action suit against Chiquita on behalf of the affected Colombian families in 2007.

The urgent motion argued that the webinar could be “viewed anywhere in the world, including by media and potential jurors in this case”. 

Chiquita’s arguments fell under the Southern District of Florida Local Rule 77.2(g), which provides that “a lawyer or law firm associated with a civil action shall not during its investigation or litigation make or participate in making an extrajudicial statement.”

Judge Marra’s decision comes before two bellwether trials set for April 22 and mid-July. The case against Chiquita has been pending since 2008.

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