BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — After extraditing hundreds of drug trafficking suspects to the United States since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, the Colombian government may soon turn the tables.
Atty. Gen. Mario Iguaran told reporters Wednesday that he would consider requesting the extradition of up to eight executives of Chiquita Brands International Inc. to face criminal charges including arms trafficking and criminal conspiracy.
To help decide whether to prosecute, Iguaran said, he has formally requested that the U.S. Justice Department forward him documents related to Cincinnati-based Chiquita's guilty plea in a Washington court this week to one count of "engaging in transactions with a specially designated global terrorist."
The company acknowledged making more than 100 payments from 1997 to 2004 totaling at least $1.7 million.
In a federal filing last week, the company said it would pay a $25-million fine to settle a lengthy Justice Department investigation of protection money Chiquita paid to right-wing paramilitary armies before the sale of its wholly owned subsidiary here, called Banadex, in 2004.
The payments, Chiquita said, were meant to protect its employees and its thousands of acres of plantations, which are mostly near Colombia's Caribbean coast.
Dealings with paramilitaries or left-wing guerrillas is a criminal offense in Colombia, and Iguaran has vigorously prosecuted Colombian individuals or companies that have provided financial support or acted as proxies to launder money for the armed groups.
He helped build cases against eight members of the Colombian Congress who have been jailed in recent months on charges of colluding with right-wing militias. Alleged crimes include mass murder, electoral fraud and stealing from local governments. All eight are supporters of Uribe, a staunch U.S. ally.
According to its settlement, Chiquita made the payments during an especially bloody period on the coast of Colombia when paramilitary armies trying to wrest control of the zone massacred hundreds of leftist guerrillas and their sympathizers, and numerous human rights advocates. Tens of thousands of people fled the region.
Iguaran said his government was concerned that Chiquita's relations with the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia went beyond that of "extortionee and extortioner."
He said preliminary information indicated that Chiquita might have "facilitated or promoted" the paramilitary's illegal activities.
Of special interest to his government, Iguaran said, was a 2001 shipment of two oceangoing cargo containers filled with 3,400 AK-47 assault rifles and 4 million rounds of ammunition that paramilitaries allegedly stored in a Banadex warehouse in Turbo, Colombia.
U.S. prosecutors did not deal with the arms smuggling allegations in the settlement with Chiquita. "We will evaluate the records, and if there is a case we will file charges and ask for their extradition," Iguaran said, adding that he did not have the identities of the corporate officials, whose names were left off court documents.
As part of its plea agreement with the U.S. attorney's office and Justice Department, Chiquita agreed to cooperate in the continuing investigation, which focuses at least in part on the possible roles of several current or former senior company officials and one board member in making protection payments.
Chiquita spokesman Mike Mitchell said Wednesday that the company was not aware of any extradition requests, and he emphasized that Chiquita voluntarily disclosed in 2003 that its subsidiary "had been forced to make payments to right- and left-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia to protect the lives of its employees."
As part of its pledge to cooperate, Chiquita has waived its right to assert attorney-client privilege or "work product protection" regarding internal company documents that could shed light on possible criminal activities by senior company officials.
One former U.S. law enforcement official involved in investigations with Colombia and not authorized to discuss the matter said that if U.S. officials rejected any formal extradition demand by Colombia, the situation could get "sticky" because the Bogota government in turn could refuse to extradite drug and other suspects to the United States to face trial.
Iguaran also said his office had opened an investigation of allegations by a government witness now in jail that executives of Alabama-based Drummond Corp. paid paramilitaries to kill three union leaders in 2001 at the company's open-pit mine in the northern state of Cesar. The company has denied the allegations.
Kraul reported from Bogota and Meyer from Washington.