By Frank Bajak
Dole Food Co. made regular payments for at least a decade in a banana-growing region to illegal far-right Colombian militias that killed thousands, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Dole is the second U.S. banana importer after Chiquita Brands International Inc. to be sued in the United States for such alleged behavior.
The plaintiffs are relatives of 51 men allegedly murdered by a militia belonging to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. The victims were either involved in labor union organizing or were small farmers fighting attempts by Dole to obtain their land and plant bananas, the suit claims.
In a statement, Dole said it "categorically rejects the baseless allegations accusing the company of illegal activity in Colombia."
Filed in California state court in Los Angeles, the suit seeks hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from Dole, claiming the company acted "with malice and oppression," said Terry Collingsworth, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Westlake Village, California-based Dole allegedly made a total of about $10 million in regular payments from 1997-2007 to local AUC commanders and previously paid smaller far-right militias.
The suit accuses the AUC of "keeping unions out of Dole's banana plantations by murdering effective union leaders and using terror tactics to discourage workers from joining the unions."
A key witness for the plaintiffs is the jailed AUC commander named Jose Gregorio Mangones who demobilized as part of a peace deal with Colombia's government and who has admitted responsibility for more than half the killings cited in the suit, Collingsworth said.
At least three other former senior AUC commanders also have said that foreign banana companies that operated in Colombia, including Dole and Chiquita, made regular payments to their militias.
The four commanders have confessed to ordering several thousand of murders and specifically targeting labor organizers and alleged leftist rebel sympathizers.
Chiquita was ordered to pay a $25 million fine by the U.S. Justice Department after admitting to making regular payments to the AUC, which the State Department designated a foreign terrorist organization in September 2001.
Collingsworth, who also represents plaintiffs in the Florida federal court case against Cincinnati-based Chiquita, said the plaintiffs in the Dole case have asked to remain anonymous under pseudonyms because right-wing death squads continue to operate where they live.
"They would face retaliation for their willingness to take the company on," he said.
Mangones, alias "Carlos Tijeras," says his front received 70,000 Colombian pesos ($30) per hectare per year from Dole, which had about 3,400 hectares (8,400 acres) of bananas planted in Magdalena and La Guajira states on Colombia's northern coast, the suit says.
Dole also bought bananas from 68 independent farms that were effectively controlled by the California company, the suit says.
"Tijeras never gave us a total dollar amount but he said in any given year Dole was about 40 percent of his total operating budget," Collingsworth said in a phone interview.
He said the plaintiffs would prove that Dole's managers in the region were not "innocent bystanders paying extortion" but rather active partners in bloody conspiracy to keep labor costs down.
Collingsworth said Tijeras and some of his lieutenants told plaintiffs' investigators that when Dole wanted the militias to take action against someone, a plantation manager would directly call a militia subcommander "and the AUC would go take care of it."
So far, the lawsuit doesn't name any U.S.-based Dole employees who allegedly engaged in illegal behavior. "There were U.S. citizens who came down to Colombia regularly to deal with all things bananas, and Tijeras said he met them when they came down." But he said Tijeras could not remember their names.
Collingsworth said he hopes to learn more in pre-trial discovery.