Chiquita fined $25 mln for Colombia terror cash

WASHINGTON, Sept 17 (Reuters) - A U.S. court on Monday ordered Chiquita Brands International Inc. to pay a $25 million fine to settle charges that it did business with a terrorist organization in Colombia, a company spokesman said.

Chiquita CQB.N had agreed to the fine when it pleaded guilty in March to paying protection money to Colombian paramilitaries from 2001 to 2004.

The amount is slightly more than half the profits Chiquita earned from growing bananas in the war-torn country during that period.

Company spokesman Michael Mitchell said Chiquita will pay the fine in five equal installments over five years. The first fine has already been paid, Mitchell said.

According to the plea agreement, Chiquita paid more than $1.7 million starting in 1997 to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a violent right-wing group known by its Spanish acronym AUC.

Chiquita said it made the payments to protect its employees there.

“This was a difficult situation for the company. We were being extorted and we had to protect the well-being of our employees and their families, which were in danger,” general counsel James Thompson said in a prepared statement.

The payments continued after the U.S. government designated the AUC as a foreign terrorist organization in September 2001. Cincinnati-based Chiquita sold its Colombian subsidiary in 2004.

Chiquita, one of the world’s largest banana producers, voluntarily disclosed the payments to the Justice Department in April 2003.

Businesses in Colombia often face extortion attempts by right-wing paramilitary militias formed in the 1980s to help protect private property from Marxist rebels who have been fighting the state since the 1960s.

By the end of the 1990s both sides, labeled terrorists by the United States, were locked in a dirty war over lucrative cocaine-producing land in which peasants are killed and displaced as a way of controlling territory.

More than 31,000 paramilitary fighters have turned in their guns since 2003 in a deal offering benefits that include reduced prison terms.