July 4, 2013
Given the ongoing debate surrounding Edward Snowden and Bradley
Manning—and whether or not they committed a crime or acted in the public
good—it is fitting to revisit a case that showed how the “illegitimate”
gathering of evidence was considered a more serious crime than that of
engaging in widespread murder, bribery, arms trafficking, and knowingly
poisoning the environment of communities throughout Latin America. It is
the story of the Cincinnati Enquirer vs. Chiquita Banana.
In 1998, Mike Gallagher and Cameron McWhirter, two investigative
reporters from the Cincinnati Enquirer, published an 18-page expose
which revealed that Chiquita banana (headquartered in Cincinnati) was
engaged in wide ranging human rights abuses and environmental crimes.
The journalists had worked with Chiquita lawyer George Ventura, who
provided access to Chiquita’s internal voicemail system. They were able
to obtain confidential information about Chiquita’s role in widespread
criminal activity by monitoring internal communications.
Shortly after the publication of the story, the Cincinnati Enquirer had to issue both a retraction and apologize
not for the acts being untrue—but for the way in which Gallagher and
McWhirter gained their information. In addition to the apology and
retraction, the Cincinnati Enquirer was forced to pay Chiquita a
settlement of over $10 million
for damages. Both Gallagher and Ventura were convicted of stealing
Chiquita’s internal voicemails—with Gallagher being immediately fired
from the paper. The ruling was a clear statement that investigations of
corporate wrongdoing was subject to severe punishment and should be
discouraged by the example set by the Cincinnati Enquirer. While the
articles were retracted, they are still available here on the WikiLeaks website.
Clearly with the case of Chiquita, it did not learn its lesson—as the
damaging reports from 1998 did nothing to stop it from admitting to
paying Colombian right wing death squads in 2003. Represented by current Attorney General Eric Holder,
Chiquita claimed that they were being extorted by the groups and had to
pay the money in order to protect their workers. Mario Iguaran, the
Attorney General of Colombia claimed otherwise, bluntly stating that "this was not payment of extortion money. It was support for an illegal armed group whose methods included murder."
Simply, the attempt by the court system to erase any wrongdoing from
Chiquita’s record allowed it to continue with the status quo and
terrorize communities throughout Latin America. According to Iguaran,
Chiquita's payments to the AUC paramilitaries (an organization listed as
a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department) led to the
murder of 4,000
civilians in the banana growing regions of Colombia and funded the
growth of paramilitary organizations throughout the country.
Additionally, court documents
have shown that a shipment of 3,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 5 million
rounds of ammunition from Nicaragua to Colombia in 2001 was invoiced to
This shows the double standard that exists between the people on one
side and corporations and the government on the other. In the Snowden
controversy, the Obama administration has defended the actions of the
National Security Agency by stating that their monitoring of the
civilian population allowed them to prevent terrorist attacks—thus
Snowden is a criminal and the government was seeking to protect the
public. In the case of Chiquita, Gallagher, McWhirter, and Ventura
exposed the criminal activities of a multinational corporation with
close ties to the United States and Colombian governments in addition to
terrorist organizations—yet they were the ones who were punished. It
was only five years later in 2003 that Chiquita was forced to pay a $25 million fine for their criminal activities throughout Latin America—with none of the money going to the affected communities.
Despite the U.S. Justice Department stating that Chiquita's payments
to the paramilitaries ''were reviewed and approved by senior executives
of the corporation, to include high-ranking officers, directors and
employees,'' they did not list specific names to avoid wider measures of
accountability. What the Cincinnati Enquirer revealed about Chiquita
Banana was the stranglehold that corporations have over the legal system
and the double standard regarding the application of justice. The
courts deemed that the crime committed by Gallagher, McWhirter, and
Ventura was more serious than the multitude of crimes committed by
In the end, the issue of whistleblowing and the government's response
is dictated by unequal relationships of power. Actions which challenge
the status quo and shed light of matters regarded as inconvenient by
governments and multinational corporations will be portrayed as illegal
or unethical, while those which seek to further cement the legitimacy of
everyday criminal activity by the powerful is applauded. Eventually, in
July of 2012, Gallagher had his record expunged by the courts, but not after having his career destroyed and his courageous work silenced.
One glimmer of hope regarding Chiquita being held accountable for its
criminal activities is the ongoing lawsuit in a Florida court brought
about by thousands of Colombians, who are the relatives of victims, in
seeking to hold the company accountable for murder, torture, and
environmental destruction. Villagers allege that
the death squads used “random and targeted violence in exchange for
financial assistance and access to Chiquita’s private port for arms and
drug smuggling.” Furthermore, over 5,500 pages of documents
contradicting Chiquita’s claim that it was extorted by Colombian
paramilitaries have been released and are available online here.
Chiquita’s continued involvement in criminal activity highlights how
large and influential corporations feel as if they are above the law.
Openly lying to the court and paying a relatively small fee in
proportion to the damage they have caused across Latin America is not
evidence of justice—it is blatant evidence of corruption which go up to
the highest levels of government.