WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Banana producer Chiquita will pay a $25 million fine and serve five years' probation for once paying millions of dollars to groups in Colombia considered by the U.S. to be terrorist organizations, a Department of Justice spokesman said Tuesday.
A worker at a banana plantation in Santa Maria, Colombia, in December 2000.
In so doing, the banana producer avoided prosecution for the company's now-defunct payoff of Colombian terrorists protecting its most profitable banana-growing operation, according to terms of a plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.
If approved by U.S. courts, the $25 million fine would represent the largest U.S. criminal penalty ever imposed under federal global terrorism sanction regulations, said Justice spokesman Dean Boyd. The regulations prohibit transactions with people who commit, threaten to commit or support U.S.-designated terrorists and establish penalties for doing so.
Attorneys from the Justice Department's National Security Division and federal prosecutors for the District of Columbia filed a joint sentencing motion Tuesday asking the court to accept the plea agreement, which was reached March 19, Boyd said. A hearing on the matter is set for Monday.
In its motion, the government asked that Chiquita Brands International be fined and sentenced to probation, as well as being required to implement an effective ethics program in connection with the company's guilty plea, Boyd said.
Federal prosecutors accused the Cincinnati-based company of paying more than $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary group, in two parts of Colombia where the company grew bananas.
The payments to the group, known as the AUC, went through the company's Colombian subsidiary, Banadex, from 1997 to 2004, according to court documents filed in the case.
Court papers also say Chiquita paid Colombia's two leftist guerrilla groups, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) from about 1989 to 1997. At the time, according to court documents, those groups controlled areas where the company grew bananas.
The AUC, FARC and ELN are all combatants in Colombia's decade-long civil war, and all have been designated as terrorist organizations by the United States.
In a written statement issued in March, Chiquita Brands International CEO Fernando Aguirre said the company viewed the plea agreement "as a reasoned solution to the dilemma the company faced several years ago." The company voluntarily disclosed the payments to the Justice Department in 2003, he said, adding the payments were made "to protect the lives of its employees."
Court documents said the company began making the payments after a Banadex general manager met with the then-leader of the AUC, Carlos Castano. Castano told the manager that the AUC was preparing to drive FARC from Colombia's Uraba region and asked for payments to be made to the AUC through private security companies.
"Castano sent an unspoken but clear message that failure to make the payments could result in physical harm to Banadex personnel and property," court documents said.
Charges filed in the case said senior company executives knew about the payments to the AUC and, while checks were written to the security companies, the companies provided no actual services. In 2002, after the U.S. government designated the AUC as a terrorist organization, Chiquita began paying the organization in cash, according to court documents, and continued the payments even after being told by outside counsel that the payments were illegal and should be stopped.
In the motion filed Tuesday, federal prosecutors noted Chiquita's cooperation in the investigation and its voluntary disclosure of its illegal activity, Boyd said. While the government considered filing additional charges in the matter, it decided not to "after an extensive investigation and after considering critical evidence and information that Chiquita provided through its post-plea cooperation," he said.
Chiquita sold Banadex to another company more than two years ago but remains one of the largest purchasers of bananas in Colombia. E-mail to a friend
CNN's Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.
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