The Price Of Bananas

Steve Kroft On How Colombian Paramilitaries Landed A U.S. Corporation In Hot Water

But all of that changed in 2001, when the U.S. government designated the paramilitaries a terrorist organization, making any kind of financial assistance to the group, coerced or otherwise, a felony. Yet Chiquita continued to make the payments for another two years, claiming it missed the government's announcement.

"It was in the newspapers. It was in the Cincinnati Enquirer, which is where your company headquarters is. It was in the New York Times," Kroft points out. "I mean, this is a big part of your business, doing business in Colombia. I mean, how did you miss it?"

"Well, again, I don't know what happened during that time frame, frankly. What I know is, all the data shows that the company, the moment it learned that these payments were illegal in the United States, that's when they decided to self-disclose to the Department of Justice," Aguirre says.

By "self-disclose," he means Chiquita, on the advice of its attorneys, turned itself in to the Justice Department. One of the first things Aguirre did when he became CEO was to stop the payments and sell the company's Colombian subsidiary. The company pled guilty to a felony and agreed to pay a $25 million fine, but that wasn't the end of its legal problems.

"This company has blood on its hands," says attorney Terry Collingsworth, who has filed one of five lawsuits that have been brought against Chiquita, seeking money for the families of Colombians killed by the paramilitaries.

Collingsworth says the money Chiquita paid for seven years may have kept its employees safe, but it also helped buy weapons and ammunition that were killing other people.

"Are you saying that Chiquita was complicit in these massacres that took place down there?" Kroft asks.

"Absolutely. If you provide knowing substantial assistance to someone who then goes out and kills someone, or terrorizes, or tortures someone, you're also guilty," Collingsworth says.

Asked if he believes that Chiquita knew this money was being used to go into the villages and massacre people, Collingsworth says, "If they didn't, they would be the only ones in the whole country of Colombia who didn't think that."

"You're not saying that Chiquita wanted these people to be killed?" Kroft asks.

"No, they were indifferent to it," Collingsworth says. "…they were willing to accept that those people would be dead, in order to keep their banana operation running profitably, and making all the money that they did in Colombia."

Collingsworth says he thinks the company should have just picked up and left.

"It's easy for a lawyer to give that type of advice, after the fact," Aguirre argues. "When you have more than 3,500 workers, their lives depend on you. When you've been making payments to save their lives, you just can't pick up and go."

"What did the company think this money was gonna be used for?" Kroft asks.

"Well, clearly to save lives," Aguirre says.

"The lives of your employees?" Kroft asks.

"Absolutely," Aguirre says.

"It was also being used to kill other people," Kroft says.

"Well, these groups were funded with hundreds of millions of dollars. They had the guns," Aguirre says. "They had the bullets. So I don't know who in their right mind would say, 'Well, if Chiquita would have stopped, these killers would have stopped.' I just don't see that happening."

"Do you feel that the company has any responsibility to compensate the victims of the paramilitaries in Colombia?" Kroft asks.

"The responsibility of any murders are the responsibility of the people that made the killings, of the people who pulled the trigger," Aguirre says.