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Chiquita funded Colombian terrorists for years. A jury now says the firm is liable for killings.

Chiquita Brands was ordered Monday by a Florida jury to pay $38.3 million to the families of eight people killed by a right-wing paramilitary group in Colombia, which the banana grower had funded for years during that country's violent civil war. 

Chiquita had previously acknowledged funding the paramilitary group, pleading guilty in 2007 after the U.S. Department of Justice charged the company with providing payments to what the agency labeled a "terrorist organization." The group, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC, received payments from Chiquita from about 1997 through 2004, which the company had described as "security payments" during the country's internal conflict. 

The decision marks the first time an American jury has held a large U.S. corporation liable for a major human rights violation in another country, according to EarthRights International, a human rights firm that represented one family in the case. Chiquita still faces thousands of other claims from victims of the AUC, and Monday's decision could pave the way for more cases to come to trial or for a "global settlement," said Marco Simons, EarthRights general counsel, in a press conference to discuss the jury's decision. 

"Chiquita had a very high degree of understanding of the armed conflict in Colombia," Simons said. "This wasn't some bumbling U.S. corporation that didn't know what was going on in the country where it was operating."

In a statement to CBS MoneyWatch, Chiquita said it will appeal the jury's verdict. 

"The situation in Colombia was tragic for so many, including those directly affected by the violence there, and our thoughts remain with them and their families," the company said in the statement. "However, that does not change our belief that there is no legal basis for these claims. While we are disappointed by the decision, we remain confident that our legal position will ultimately prevail."

Chiquita has insisted that its Colombia subsidiary, Banadex, only made the payments out of fear that AUC would harm its employees and operations, court records show.

Reacting to the ruling on social media, Colombia President Gustavo Petro questioned why the U.S. justice system could "determine" Chiquita financed paramilitary groups, while judges in Colombia have not ruled against the company.

"The 2016 peace deal … calls for the creation of a tribunal that will disclose judicial truths, why don't we have one?" Petro posted on X, referencing the year the civil conflict ended.

The verdict followed a six-week trial and two days of deliberations. The EarthRights case was originally filed in July 2007 and was combined with several other lawsuits.

"Target on their back"

The AUC was also categorized as a "foreign terrorist organization" by the U.S. State Department in 2001, a designation that made supporting the paramilitary group a federal crime. Chiquita provided the group with 100 payments amounting to almost $2 million in funding, the Justice Department said in 2007. 

Several decades ago, when the conflict in Colombia drove down prices of land in the country's banana-growing regions, Chiquita took advantage of the situation by expanding its operations, said Marissa Vahlsing, EarthRights director of transnational legal strategy. 

"They knew this would put a target on their back, being a large multinational corporation," with FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a leftist rebel group, Vahlsing said. That prompted Chiquita to turn to the AUC for protection, she added. 

Chiquita executives testified during the trial that its AUC payments were voluntary and that the company wasn't threatened by the paramilitary group to make the payments, Simons said. 

"We think the jury saw through Chiquita's defense, that they were threatened and had to make payments to save lives," Simons said. "The jury also rejected Chiquita's defense that they put forward, which is known as a duress defense, that they had no other choice, they had to do this."

Brutal killings

The AUC was more brutal than the rebels they were fighting against, Simons said. The cases brought by survivors of people killed by the paramilitary group included one involving a young girl traveling with her mother and stepfather in a taxi, when they were pulled over by AUC members. She witnessed her parents murdered by the group, who then gave her a few pesos for transportation back to town, EarthRights said. 

Simons noted that one former Chiquita executive, when asked during the trial if he was concerned about payments to the terrorist group, responded that as a human being it concerned him. But, the executive added, "As chief accounting officer, to make sure that the records are appropriate, it was not part of my deliberation," according to Simons. 

"That is unfortunately the way a lot of the the multinational folks think," Simons said. "They check their humanity at the door when they engage in business practices."

—With reporting by the Associated Press.

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