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MIAMI - Each name is next to a number, in black type on a thick legal document. They are the mothers and fathers, spouses, sisters and brothers of thousands of Colombians who were killed or vanished during a bloody civil conflict between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups whose victims have largely been civilians.

The list has at least 4,000 names, each one targetingChiquita Brands International in U.S. lawsuits, claiming the produce giant's payments and other assistance to the paramilitary groups amounted to supporting terrorists.

Cincinnati-based Chiquita in 2007 pleaded guilty to similar criminal charges brought by the Justice Department and paid a $25 million fine. But if the lawsuits succeed, plaintiffs' lawyers estimate the damages against Chiquita couldreach into the billions. The cases filed around the country are being consolidated before a South Florida federal judge who must decide whether to dismiss them or let them proceed.

"A company that pays a terrorist organization that kills thousands of people should get the capital punishment of civil liability and be put out of business by punitive damages," said attorney Terry Collingsworth, whofiled one of the first lawsuits on behalf of Colombians.

Chiquita has long maintained it was essentially blackmailed into paying the paramilitary groups — perpetrators of the majority of civilian deaths in Colombia's dirty war — and insists the lawsuits should be dismissed.

"Chiquita was extorted in Colombia and company officials believed that the payments were necessary to prevent violentretaliation against employees," said company spokesman Ed Loyd.

The lawsuits could be strengthened by the recent release of some 5,500 pages of internal Chiquita documents that were produced during the Justice Department probe. The documents detail how payments were hidden by accounting maneuvers, and shed light on Colombian government and political involvement with the paramilitary group. Theyalso show there was a debate among Chiquita executives about whether the payments were proper.

In a 1997 handwritten note, one Chiquita executive said such payments are the "cost of doing business in Colombia."

"Need to keep this very confidential — people can get killed," he wrote.

Chiquita, with some 21,000 employees on six continents, is best known as the top U.S. banana seller butalso markets a variety of other produce and fruit-based snacks.

Chiquita's sprawling banana operations in Colombia date to 1899, mostly in remote areas of Santa Marta and Uraba along the Caribbean coast. By the 1970s, the country's civil conflict threatened the banana farms, mostly fomented by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — known by its Spanish acronym, FARC. The guerrillasdemanded payment from companies such as Chiquita or they would attack workers and operations. Chiquita paid between $20,000 and $100,000 a month, court documents show.

FARC became so powerful in the banana-growing areas that Colombia's military forces could not defeat them. The group bombed Chiquita operations and kidnapped employees. In 1995, 17 banana workers were gunned down on a muddy soccerfield, U.S. prosecutors said. Later that year, FARC forced 26 workers to lie in a ditch and they were shot in the head.

The AUC, a Spanish acronym for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, was founded in 1997 as an umbrella group to unite the far-right militias across the country. Those militias were formed in the 1980s by ranchers and drug traffickers to counter extortion and kidnappingby the FARC and other leftist rebels.

The AUC wasted no time trying to muscle FARC out of the Chiquita money stream.

Paramilitary warlords, backed by top military and political leaders, have admitted to killing more than 50,000 civilians, Colombian prosecutors said.

The Chiquita lawsuit cites a number of AUC massacres, including a July 1997 operation in the town of Mapiripan in which...
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