The following is the transcript from the 60 Minutes Show (May 11, 2008) that I mentioned in my last blog piece: Unpeeling Chiquita and Dole.
You can also view a video of the show by going to the CBS news website.
Below is the transcript printed in its entirety.
The Price Of Bananas
Steve Kroft: On How Colombian Paramilitaries Landed A U.S. Corporation In Hot Water
May 11, 2008
The Price Of Bananas
Chiquita Brands International says it paid murderous paramilitaries in Colombia to protect its employees there, but the families of civilians killed by the paramilitaries fault the company for their deaths. Steve Kroft reports.
(CBS) For American corporations, the rewards of doing business abroad are enormous, but so are the risks. And over the past 25 years no place has been more perilous than Colombia, a country that is just beginning to emerge from the throes of civil war and narco-terrorism.
Chiquita Brands International of Cincinnati, Ohio, found out the hard way. It made millions growing bananas there, only to emerge with its reputation splattered in blood after acknowledging it had paid nearly $2 million in protection money to a murderous paramilitary group that has killed or massacred thousands of people.
As correspondent Steve Kroft reports, the Colombian government is now talking about extraditing Chiquita executives to Colombia, and investigators in Bogota and on Capitol Hill are looking at other U.S. companies that may have done the same thing.
From the air, the plains of the Uraba region are carpeted with lush foliage of banana plantations, which have long provided a livelihood for the people of northern Colombia. And for the better part of century, its best known product has been the Chiquita banana.
But since the 1980’s, the business of bananas there has been punctuated with gunfire. First, the area was taken over by Marxist guerillas called the “FARC,” whose ruthlessness at killing and kidnapping was exceeded only by the private paramilitary army that rose up to fight them. Chiquita found itself trying to grow bananas in the middle of a war, in which the Colombian government and its army were of no help.
“These lands were lands where there was no law. It was impossible for the government to protect employees,” says Fernando Aguirre, who became Chiquita’s CEO long after all this happened.
Aguirre says the company was forced to pay taxes to the guerillas when they controlled the territory in the late 1980s and early 90s. When the paramilitaries, known as the “AUC,” moved in in 1997 they demanded the same thing.
“Did the paramilitaries state, specifically to you, that if you didn’t make the payments, your people would be killed?” Kroft asks.
“There was a very, very strong signal that if the company would not make payments, that things would happen. And since they had already killed at least 50 people, employees of the company, it was clear to everyone there that these guys meant business,” Aguirre says.
Chiquita only had a couple of options and none of them were particularly good. It could refuse to pay the paramilitaries and run the risk that its employees could be killed or kidnapped, it could pack up and leave the country all together and abandon its most profitable enterprise, or it could stay and pay protection, and in the process, help finance the atrocities that were being committed all across the countryside.
“These were extortion payments,” Aguirre says. “Either you pay or your people get killed.”
“And you decided to pay,” Kroft remarks.
“And the company decided to pay, absolutely,” Aguirre says.
There was no doubt in the company’s mind that the paramilitaries were very bad people, Aguirre says.
Just how bad was already becoming evident. The paramilitaries, who were funded initially by large landowners, and later by the cocaine trade, not only drove the Marxist guerillas from the area, they tried to eliminate anyone who might have leftist sympathies, from labor leaders to school teachers. Sometimes entire villages were wiped out in the most grisly fashion. Gloria Cuartes was the mayor of Apartado, and witnessed much of it with her own eyes.
“I was a mayor whose job was just to gather the dead,” Cuartes says.
In 1996 she went to a school to talk to the children about the violence that surrounded them. While she was there, the paramilitaries arrived and murdered a 12-year-old boy, whose only crime had been to announce their presence.
“They cut off his head, and they threw the head at us,” Cuartes remembers. “I went into a state of panic. They were there for four hours, with their weapons, firing shots toward the ceiling. One hundred girls and boys were with me. The children did not scream. They were in shock.”
Asked if they said anything to her, Cuartes says, “No. Their language was death. Their message was that if they could do this to children, they could do it to me.”
As the atrocities piled up all across the country, Chiquita continued to make the payments to the paramilitaries, viewing itself as a victim of the violence, not a facilitator.
The Justice Department decided not to prosecute any corporate officers at Chiquita, which included prominent businessmen such as former CEO Cyrus Freidheim Jr., now head of Sun-Times Media Group, and board member Roderick Hills, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The decision created a furor in Colombia. The country’s prosecutor general said he would begin his own investigation, and has threatened to extradite some of Chiquita’s executives to stand trial in Colombia.
There’s also a Congressional investigation, led by Representative William Delahunt of Massachusetts, who chairs a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
Rep. Delahunt has been quoted as saying that Chiquita is the tip of the iceberg.
Asked what he means by that, Delahunt tells Kroft, “Well, I think that there are other American companies that have conducted themselves the same way that Chiquita has, except they haven’t been caught.”
How many companies?
“Well, there are several,” Delahunt says.
Delahunt says he doesn’t want to share more information “because I want to give those companies an opportunity to come before the committee.”
60 Minutes did find one person who was willing to name names inside a maximum security prison outside Medellin: Salvatore Mancuso was once the leader of the paramilitaries. Chiquita says the reason they paid the money was because your people would kill them if they didn’t. Is that true?” Kroft asks.
“No it is not true,” Mancuso says. “They paid taxes because we were like a state in the area, and because we were providing them with protection which enabled them to continue making investments and a financial profit.”
“What would have happened to Chiquita and its employees if they had not paid you?” Kroft asks.
“The truth is, we never thought about what would happen because they did so willingly,” Mancuso says.
Asked if the company had a choice, Mancuso says, “Yes, they had a choice. They could go to the local police or army for protection from the guerillas, but the army and police at that time were barely able to protect themselves.”
Mancuso helped negotiate a deal with the Colombian government that allowed more than 30,000 paramilitaries to give up their arms and demobilize in return for reduced prison sentences. As part of the deal, the paramilitaries must truthfully confess to all crimes, or face much harsher penalties.
Update: Mancuso, along with 13 other paramilitary warlords, was extradited on May 13, 2008 to the United States for failing to comply with the peace pact.
“Was Chiquita the only American company that paid you?” Kroft asks Mancuso.
“All companies in the banana region paid. For instance, there was Dole and Del Monte, which I believe are U.S. companies,” Mancuso claims.
Both Dole Food Company and Fresh Del Monte Produce, which is not affiliated with Del Monte Foods, have issued statements strongly denying that they made payments to the paramilitaries. Fresh Del Monte Produce said its Colombian operation is “limited to a sales office which purchases bananas from independent growers.”
“Dole and Del Monte say they never paid you any money,” Kroft tells Mancuso.
“Chiquita has been honest by acknowledging the reality of the conflict and the payments that it made; the others also made payments, not only international companies, but also the national companies in the region,” Mancuso says.
“So you’re saying Dole and Del Monte are lying?” Kroft asks.
“I’m saying they all paid,” Mancuso says.
Mancuso has been indicted in the U.S. for smuggling 17 tons of cocaine into the country. He says he’s more than willing to tell U.S prosecutors anything they want to know.
“Has anyone come down here from the United States to talk to you about Dole, or to talk to you about Del Monte or any other companies?” Kroft asks.
“No one has come from the Department of Justice of the United States to talk to us,” Mancuso says. “I am taking the opportunity to invite the Department of State and the Department of Justice, so that they can come and so I can tell them all that they want to know from us.”
“And you would name names?” Kroft asks.
“Certainly, I would do so,” Mancuso says.
So far, the only company that’s been charged with paying money to terrorists in Colombia is the one that turned itself in.
“Do you think if you hadn’t gone to the Justice Department and disclosed the situation, that anything would’ve happened to you?” Kroft asks.
“Well, Mr. Kroft, if we hadn’t gone to the Justice Department, we probably would not be here talking about this whole issue. No one would know about this,” Aguirre says.
It is important to note that some things have changed in Colombia over the past few years. Besides demobilizing the paramilitaries, the Colombian government has made significant progress against the guerrillas, and the army now controls much of the countryside.
Produced by Andy Court
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