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CINCINNATI ONLINE: Chiquita asked to aid Colombia terror victims

May 27th, 2010

Chiquita Brands International Inc.'s top executive pledged to consider a petition asking for a fund to be set up for potential victims of terrorists paid by Chiquita in the 1990s presented Thursday at the company's annual shareholders meeting.

But Chiquita chairman and chief executive officer Fernando Aguirre stopped short of promising any action, saying the downtown-based produce giant also was "a victim" of the Colombian terrorism groups.

"We sympathize with the very many families who suffered in the many, many years in Colombia of terrorist activities," Aguirre said in response to the petition, presented by Washington-based human rights group Witness for Peace at the meeting at Chiquita's headquarters. "We were extorted. We were victims. We have proven through many investigations and through the (Department of Justice) that we were victimized through this.

"But I am happy to read (the petition) and have my executive team go through it and in due time we'll reply back to you."

In May 2004, Chiquita publicly disclosed that it had paid three different paramilitary groups on federal known terrorist lists. It had previously disclosed that fact to the Justice Department the previous year and eventually paid a $25 million fine for its actions. It has since sold its Colombian operations and left the country.

Chiquita officials have repeatedly said that the payments were to keep their employees safe from attacks from the groups.

Since then, the families of several victims have filed a federal lawsuit against Chiquita, and the case has been granted class-action status.

Those presenting the petition said it had been signed by 1,300 U.S. citizens. It asks not only for the families fund of "14,000 victims," but for Chiquita to officially apologize and fire all employees involved in the meeting.

"We are demanding, really, that you apologize to the people of Colombia for your complicity with the paramilitaries and the guerrillas in the murder of 14,000 civilians," Witness for Peace member Ken Crowley said during the question and answer portion of the meeting. "We request, really demand, that you put aside some of the profits during the years that you were complicit with these two horribly terrorist organizations ... and put that money aside to help fund some of the families of those victims."

But the exchange with Aguirre was civil, with Crowley thanking ultimately Aguirre for considering the actions.

"Will it ever go away? I think as long as we have a plaintiff's bar in this country ... it is going to be very difficult for issues like this to totally go away," Aguirre said in a separate interview after the meeting. "But this is an issue that is totally behind us from a business standpoint and from a management standpoint. We still have to deal with this in the courts, but that process is ongoing."

Aguirre also addressed several other topics, including a recent recall of Fresh Express salads after a salmonella outbreak. But Aguirre said that the recall was "an abundance of precaution" and that no one had been sickened by the company's products.

"Food safety is always a concern in this business, but we don't see this one as having a major impact on our results," Aguirre said.

At the meeting, Chiquita investors also approved a slate of nine directors, all of whom are returning to the board. There were no new directors recommended or elected.

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