By Tracey Begley

Photo by David Monniaux.

A suit against Chiquita Brands International filed by families of Americans kidnapped and killed by the FARC guerrilla force of Colombia will continue in federal courts after U.S. Judge Kenneth Marra of the Southern District of Florida rejected Chiquita’s motion to dismiss on February 4, 2010. The plaintiffs are family members of five men who worked as missionaries in Panama across the border from Colombia in the 1990s. FARC kidnapped the men separately, demanded ransom, and then killed each one. The plaintiffs are most likely suing Chiquita in U.S. court, rather than filing suit against FARC in either U.S. or Colombian courts, because Chiquita is a large, identifiable corporation with high profits, whereas it would be difficult to find the members of FARC who committed the crimes and prosecute them in any forum. Therefore, the plaintiffs are likely to have more success at recovering damages than trying to hold FARC.

The U.S. Secretary of State declared FARC, a group that controls vast areas of Colombia, a foreign terrorist organization in 1997 because of its violent acts, kidnappings, and bombings. Plaintiffs allege that Chiquita gave FARC money, which supported the organization’s violent actions and resulted in their family members’ death. Chiquita, however, claims it was forced to pay the guerrillas in order to work in remote areas of the country. Judge Marra’s decision to allow the suit to proceed sends a message to U.S. corporations that they may face liability if they finance international terrorist organizations. Plaintiffs’ attorney Greg Hansel told the Human Rights Brief that “the families intend to hold Chiquita accountable for supporting Colombian terrorists to make a buck selling banana.”

The case was filed under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991(18 U.S.C. § 2331), a statute allowing U.S. citizens and their heirs to sue for injuries resulting from acts of international terrorism. Although the statute broadly states that a plaintiff may sue for “an act of international terrorism” without specifying who the plaintiffs may sue, the Chiquita case stands with other case law to include organizations supporting terrorist groups as possible defendants. Under plaintiffs’ theory of recovery, Chiquita violated the Anti-Terrorism Act when it aided and abetted FARC’s terrorist activities by providing the guerrillas with money. Chiquita’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted asserted that mere payments to FARC were not “acts of international terrorism” because they did not constitute violent acts dangerous to human life so as to meet the statute’s partial definition of “acts of international terrorism.”

While Chiquita’s payments to FARC by themselves may not have been acts of international terrorism, the court noted that under the Anti-Terrorism Act, the plaintiffs did not need to show that Chiquita committed acts of terrorism in order to hold Chiquita liable. The plaintiffs simply had to be injured by acts of international terrorism, which they were. Furthermore, the court found that plaintiffs provided sufficient evidence that Chiquita provided resources for FARC, which subsequently killed the missionaries.

Senator Charles Grassley (R- IA), the co-sponsor of the bill that became the Anti-Terrorism Act, said that the Act sought to ensure that “American victims [of terrorism would] be able to bring a claim against a terrorist group for money damages.” Judge Marra noted, however, that the case law construing the statute shows that the Anti-Terrorist Act also extends secondary liability to aiders and abettors who provide money to international terrorist groups.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2007 Chiquita admitted to paying another Colombian group considered a terrorist organization. The company paid Colombian paramilitary group, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), from about 1997 to 2004, even after Chiquita knew that the U.S. government considered them a foreign terrorist organization. In that case, Chiquita entered a plea agreement with the U.S. government in which it paid U.S. $25 million and admitted to paying an international terrorist group while hiding the information in its records.

The fact that Chiquita admitted to paying the AUC leads to a reasonable inference that the company was also paying FARC. As such, Judge Marra agreed that there was sufficient evidence to prove that Chiquita knew that FARC was a foreign terrorist organization, but nevertheless continued supporting the group.

The lawsuit has sparked two similar suits against Chiquita: one brought under the Alien Torts Statute by hundreds of Colombians whose family members were killed by FARC and another suit by shareholders of Chiquita against the corporation. The Alien Torts Statute grants jurisdiction to U. S. federal courts to hear civil cases brought by non-U.S. citizens. The Colombian plaintiffs’ case follows similar reasoning as the cause brought by the missionaries’ family members, i.e. that Chiquita’s payments to FARC helped the group continue its acts of violence, resulting in their family members deaths. Both the case brought by the Colombians and the one brought by shareholders are pending in federal courts, and the case under the Anti-Terrorism Act is the first case to have any decision so far.