Chiquita Brands International pleaded guilty in March to allegations that company officials made payments to paramilitary and guerrilla groups, including the right-wing United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The company agreed to pay $25 million in a settlement case investigated by the U.S. Justice Department. Chiquita, which sold its Colombia operations three years ago, maintains that it paid the group in an effort to "protect" its employees.
It is estimated that over 4,000 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia in the past two decades, according to the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center.
Fifty-eight Colombian labor activists were killed in 2006 alone, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, while the Escuela Nacional Sindical, a Colombian labor rights group, puts the number of killings for that year at 72.
The AUC completed a controversial partial demobilization process last year as a result of negotiations with the government of right-wing President ēlvaro Uribe. However, there have been abundant reports of the paramilitaries regrouping.
According to the John F. Henning Center for International Labor Relations at the University of California, Berkeley: "Links between the right-wing paramilitary groups that carry out the majority of these killings and both U.S.-based corporations operating in Colombia and U.S. military assistance to the country have become increasingly evident."
"Of greatest concern are the alarming links between the official Colombian military and the ultra-right-wing organizations of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, who are responsible for 90 percent of trade union assassinations in Colombia," researchers at the Center found.
Many activists and experts argue that its geostrategic location is a key factor fuelling Colombia's four-decade armed conflict. "Uraba is in the northwestern region, connected to Panama and the Caribbean. It is strategic for the transport of illegal drugs, arms, and soldiers of various sorts," Renata Rendon, advocacy officer for the Americas for the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International, told IPS.
Banana production in Colombia takes place predominantly in two northern regions, Uraba and Santa Marta.
Rendon said that Uraba is a poor farming area, where "the civilian population has historically been targeted by paramilitary groups."
"The paramilitaries have always received political, military, and economic support -- support from politicians, from businessmen within the country, whether internationals or locals," she added.
Marselha Gonalves Margerin, program officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights in Washington, D.C., told IPS she believes that the world is discussing Colombia as if it were a post-conflict country, when it is actually still embroiled in a civil war.
"The Colombia problem is multi-fold; the concern is that money from the U.S. to Colombia is helping paramilitary groups, hence perpetuating the human rights problem," said Margerin, who noted that Colombia has been declared the most dangerous country for human rights activists.
"The human rights problem, the security problem, the war on terrorism -- definitely the situation for human rights defenders is very serious," she said.
"We have seen the situation for human rights defenders deteriorating a lot in the past few years," said Margerin, who pointed to the "very serious" allegations comparing human rights defenders to terrorists, which she said gives paramilitary groups the green light to go ahead with their activities. President Uribe himself has made statements along those lines.
A number of human rights groups have called for a decrease in U.S. aid to Colombia, which they claim helps strengthen paramilitary groups, whose ties to the Colombian armed forces have been amply demonstrated. In its place, they want to see aid money go towards social development, such as poverty alleviation programs and aid to the internally displaced, which number more than three million.
Just last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a 2008 foreign aid bill which proposed cutting the proportion of military aid to Colombia from 76 to 55 percent. Democratic Representative Nita Lowey, chair of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, introduced the bill, also known as H.R. 2764.
"Since 2000, over 80 percent of our [U.S.] aid to Colombia has gone to Colombia's security forces," according to the Center for International Policy's (CIP) assessment of the Colombia bill.
The bill calls for "more economic aid, specific conditions for economic aid, stronger human rights conditions, stronger fumigation conditions, stronger paramilitary demobilization aid conditions, and reporting requirements," CIP reports.
"We would like the bill to eventually go to the Senate," Lisa Haggard, executive director of the Latin American Working Group, told IPS. When asked about the State Department, she said "We would like to see a constant dialogue with the U.S. State Department and the need to apply human rights in the law."
Another new element of the bill calls on the government of Colombia to protect the land and property rights of Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples from the Colombian Armed Forces.
The bill must be approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and must also be signed by President George W. Bush, before it becomes law.
The U.S. government has provided Colombia with billions of dollars in aid over the last decade, making it the world's third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt.
Twice a year, the State Department certifies Colombia's compliance with the human rights conditions contained within U.S. legislation, in order to release military aid.
"Our concern is really that there is a process whereby the secretary of state notes that the links between paramilitary groups and the government are being severed," and that "the secretary of state has been certifying this (Colombia's progress on human rights) for six years," said Rendon of Amnesty International.
"It may be true that it could be improving on some level. But on human rights, not so much," she added.
IPS contacted the State Department for comments on the lawsuits against Chiquita and Drummond, but they declined to provide statements and said they were currently reviewing the Drummond case.
Comments? Send a letter to the editor.
Albion Monitor July
9, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
All Rights Reserved.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.