Blood and Bananas: Chiquita’s Deadly History of Drugs, Corruption, and Cover-ups

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On May 3, 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an expose titled “Chiquita Secrets Revealed” by Mike Gallagher and Cameron McWhirter. The articles detailed Chiquita’s complicity in international drug trafficking, bribing foreign government officials, suppressing the unionization of workers and poisoning employees with hazardous pesticides.

The investigation included a wide range a sources including over 2,000 copies of voicemail messages between Chiquita executives admitting to their crimes. Mike Gallagher, the lead investigative reporter on the story, claimed he had acquired the voicemails from a former legal counsel for Chiquita who wished to remain anonymous.

In 1997, drug enforcement agents in the U.K. and Belgium found over a ton of pure cocaine smuggled aboard at least 7 Chiquita ships. Although company executives were aware of the lax security at their shipping center in Santa Marta, Columbia, voicemail messages revealed they were reluctant to take action.

According to the expose, a Chiquita subsidiary named Banadex illegally bribed government officials in Turbo, Colombia. After learning of the bribery incident, company officials attempted to cover up the scandal. Chiquita also reportedly committed tax evasion in Colombia, Honduras, and Costa Rica.

The article accused Chiquita of firing union activists and suppressing union organization in Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica. Employees were often fired a few days before the law entitled them to company benefits, then they were rehired to start the rotation process over again. In 1994, 58 Honduran union leaders were fired for union activism. 43 of them filed suit against Chiquita and won. Even though the Honduran courts ordered Chiquita to rehire the union leaders, they were fired a few months later.

Chiquita and its subsidiaries conducted aerial spraying in Latin America using pesticides that the EPA and US Department of Agriculture have labeled as highly toxic and possible human carcinogens. Unsuspecting field workers have reportedly been sprayed with these chemicals by aircraft without warning. According to an autopsy report from November 13, 1997, Greddy Mauricio Valerin Bustos, an 18-year-old Costa Rican plantation worker, died from organophosphate intoxication, which caused his brain damage and internal bleeding.

Although the newspaper defended the expose at first, they soon learned Mike Gallagher had lied about acquiring the voicemails from a former Chiquita legal counsel from Honduras. In the face of felony charges and a lawsuit from Chiquita, Gallagher revealed his source, George G. Ventura, had given him the codes to access the company’s voicemail system. Gallagher hacked into the system hundreds of times, stealing over 2,000 voicemail messages even though his editors and lawyers repeatedly told him not to access them.

Gallagher was fired, pleaded guilty and served probation. According to Cameron McWhirter, Chiquita ended up receiving a public apology, removal of the story from the Cincinnati Enquirer’s website and over $14 million in punitive damages from the newspaper. The Securities Exchange Commission launched an investigation into Chiquita, but could not use the stolen voicemail messages because they would be inadmissible in court.

Before Chiquita Brands International, the company started in 1899 as United Fruit Company. Both a representative of J. Henry Schroder Banking Corporation and a law partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, Allen Dulles had economic and legal ties to United Fruit. From 1946-1950, Allen Dulles served as Director of the Council on Foreign Relations. On August 23, 1951, he was appointed Deputy Director of the CIA. Exactly a month before Allen Dulles became appointed the Director of the CIA on February 26, 1953, his brother, John Foster Dulles, became the US Secretary of State.

In 1952, democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz succeeded in passing the Agrarian Reform Act. Arbenz reimbursed the company at their declared tax value of the land. United Fruit lost millions of dollars. On June 27, 1954, CIA officers E. Howard Hunt and Phil Roettinger orchestrated the coup d’etat ousting Arbenz in a covert operation designated PBSUCCESS. Arbenz fled the country while United Fruit regained the land.

Corporate raider Eli M. Black renamed the company United Brands in 1970. Black mismanaged the company and eventually committed suicide by jumping out of his office from the 44th floor. The SEC was investigating him at the time for bribing Honduran President Oswaldo Lopez Arellano with $2.5 million.

After gaining majority ownership, Carl H. Lindner, Jr. changed the name to Chiquita Brands International. During a bankruptcy reorganization plan in 2002, the company was renamed Chiquita Brands. On March 14, 2007, the US Justice Department fined Chiquita $25 million for funding Colombian paramilitary groups named on the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

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Andrew Emett is an investigative reporter and editor residing in Los Angeles, California. He received his Bachelor’s in English from the University of California, Los Angeles and studied Gonzo journalism under the tutelage of Luke Rudkowski. Andrew is currently writing scripts with The Joy Camp while investigating political and corporate abuse.

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