WASHINGTON — Chiquita Brands International, the Cincinnati-based company famous for its banana brand, on Monday made the first $5 million installment on a $25 million fine that it's agreed to pay as part of a guilty plea to charges that it supported a right-wing terrorist group in Colombia.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth approved the plea deal during a court hearing at which a prosecutor said that Chiquita had made payments to both left-wing and right-wing terrorist groups to buy protection for its employees and facilities in Colombia.
In addition to the fine, the plea agreement places the corporation on five years probation and requires that it set up an internal ethics training program. Last week, the Justice Department decided that no Chiquita executives would be charged.
"This was a difficult situation for the company,'' James Thompson, Chiquita's general counsel, said after the hearing. "We were being extorted and we had to protect the well-being of our employees and their families.''
But Jonathan Malis, the Department of Justice prosecutor, called the payments "morally repugnant'' and said the company may have protected the lives of its workers but "fueled violence everywhere else.''
The charges that Chiquita provided material support to a terrorist organization uncovered a grim underworld of corporate protection money given to Colombian armed groups accused of massive kidnappings, killings and displacement of innocent civilians.
Malis said Chiquita's payments first went to left-wing guerrilla groups and then after 1997 to right-wing paramilitary organizations known by their Spanish acronym as AUC.
The company made more than 100 payments to the AUC, totaling $1.7 million, until they were stopped in February 2004. The payments were illegal after September 2001, when the State Department declared the AUC a terrorist organization.
Prosecutors argued that the company continued to pay the AUC even after some company officers expressed fears that they were breaking U.S. laws.
The company still faces civil lawsuits by Colombian victims, which the company says it will fight "vigorously.''
"Chiquita has already been the victim of extortion in Colombia,'' company spokesman Michael Mitchell said in an e-mail. "We will not allow ourselves to become extortion victims in the United States.''