Big banana firms paid off terrorists, Colombian ex-warlord tells inquiry

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SOME of the world's best-known banana firms financed right-wing Colombian militias that killed thousands of people during a decade-long reign of terror, a jailed warlord has claimed.

In testimony to investigators, Salvatore Mancuso named multinationals Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole as having made regular payments to the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union.

Mancuso, once second-in-command of the AUC, did not specify why the companies paid the militias, but the illegal groups often exacted "war taxes" from businesses and ranchers in areas where they operated.

Wealthy landowners and drug traffickers created the paramilitaries in the early 1980s to protect them from rebel extortion and kidnapping but the groups have since largely degenerated into murderous gangs.

They were also union busters, and killed hundreds of labour rights activists. Colombia's prosecutor's office estimates the paramilitaries left at least 10,000 bodies in mass graves.

The AUC has been recognised as a "foreign terrorist organisation" by the US government since 2001.

Jesus Vargas, a lawyer for victims of paramilitary violence who was at the hearing, said Mancuso told investigators that "each one paid one cent for each box of bananas they exported".

The press was barred from the hearing but Mancuso's lawyer, Hernando Benavides, confirmed his client's testimony.

A spokesman for US-based Dole Food denied the accusation. "Recent press accounts implicating Dole with illegal organisations in Colombia are absolutely untrue," Marty Ordman said.

No one was available for comment at other fruit companies that operate in Colombia.

However, Chiquita Brands International has acknowledged paying the paramilitaries $1.7 million (862,000) over six years under a deal with the US justice department. The company also paid a fine of $25 million (12.7 million).

Chiquita says the payments were made to protect its workers, but Colombia's chief prosecutor has said companies that made such payments shared the responsibility for paramilitary murders.

Trade unions and human rights activists say Colombian firms and multinationals routinely paid paramilitaries to act as union busters, killing labour leaders and making the country the most dangerous in the world for organised labour officials.

The AUC were formed in April 1997 to consolidate many local and regional paramilitary groups in Colombia. They were estimated to have as many as 20,000 fighters.

Backers claimed their primary objective was to protect sponsors and supporters from insurgents whose activities, included kidnap, murder and extortion, because the Colombian state failed to do so.

However, senior AUC officials have admitted that as much as 70 per cent of their earnings were drug-related.

Mancuso, who is testifying as part of a peace deal with the government, also accused Colombians beverage giants Postobon and Bavaria of paying "taxes" to the paramilitaries in return for permission to operate along the Atlantic coast, long a stronghold of the illegal militia.

Mr Vargas, a lawyer for the Mothers of the Candelaria - which represents victims of paramilitary terror, said Mancuso alleged that high-ranking executives of both companies were aware of the payments, which began in the 1990s.

Bavaria denied the claim.