US firms finance death squads in Colombia

“They do not pay for security, they pay for blood”, says Mario Iguaran, who toured Washington early this week to discuss the issue with President Bush’s collaborators.

Colombia chief prosecutor is touring Washington this week to collect evidence against alleged US firms that finance far-right paramilitary groups in the embattled South American nation. Mario Iguaran met with US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Sen. Patrick Leahy –D-Vermont- to discuss the issue.

“Not just killers but those who bankrolled them must be brought to justice”, Mario Iguaran told reporters last week at the mass grave in the country's eastern plains. "You can clearly see that they didn't pay for security, but for blood," Iguaran said and named Chiquita Brands and the Alabama-based coal company Drummond Co. Inc as the US multinationals involved in the scandal.

According to the local press, fruit giant Chiquita agreed in March to pay $25 million to settle with the U.S. Department of Justice after acknowledging that its Colombian subsidiary, Banadex, secretly funneled $1.7 million to the death squads operating in zones where it had banana plantations. In 2001, a Banadex ship was used to unload 3,000 rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition for the paramilitaries.

At the time, the paramilitaries were consolidating control of the Uraba banana region through massacres and assassinations. Chiquita later sold Banadex but still buys Colombian bananas.

Cincinnati, Ohio-based Chiquita says it was a victim of paramilitary extortion. In a statement it said its payments to the militias "were always motivated by our good faith concern for the safety of our employees." But a number of leading Colombians have demanded the extradition of U.S.-based Chiquita executives. And last week, Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, called for an investigation into the practices here of both Chiquita and Drummond.

Right-wing militias emerged in Colombia in the eighties as “white guard” armed groups backed by landowners to fight leftist rebel groups, which were popular among peasants and workers. These bandits were frequently involved in massacres of farmers, as developed into mafias, enriching themselves through cocaine trafficking, extortions and kidnappings.

While fighting left wing insurgency, country’s conservative President Alvaro Uribe has negotiated controversial cease-fire deals with far-right death squads, which frequently led to impunity for their leaders. Through the Human Rights Committee, the Organization of American States (OAS) has repeatedly questioned Uribe’s policy, which enjoys extraordinary approval ratings among Colombians.

A scandal erupted last month as some lawmakers from Uribe’s party were caught financing paramilitary groups. It also led to the resignation of the country’s Foreign Minister, Maria Consuelo Araujo, who stepped down after her brother, a senator, was jailed on charges he finances illegal right-wing paramilitary bandits.

Hernan Etchaleco

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Author`s name Alex Naumov