Colombia May Seek Chiquita Executives on Militia Payoffs

Colombia may seek to extradite employees from Chiquita Brands International after the U.S. banana giant pleaded guilty to charges a subsidiary paid protection money to illegal paramilitary gangs, the country's top prosecutor said on Tuesday.

In U.S. District Court on Monday, Chiquita admitted paying off the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia or AUC, a paramilitary organization branded a terrorist group by Washington and accused of some of the worst atrocities in a four-decade-old guerrilla war.

"What is important is for Colombian justice to carry out its own investigations in the case and if necessary seek extradition," Attorney General Mario Iguaran told local FM de RCN radio station.

The guilty plea came as U.S. ally President Alvaro Uribe fends off a scandal after eight of his political allies and a former security police chief were arrested for ties to the militias who have now disarmed under a peace deal.

Iguaran did not give any names but said eight Chiquita employees and two executives from its former local subsidiary Banadex had been linked to the investigation.

Chiquita has agreed to pay a fine of $25 million though it said the AUC threatened its employees and it made the payments only to protect its workers. "Compensation comes not just with reparation, in this case asking for $25 million paid in a fine, but also with truth and justice and that could materialize if these people respond before Colombian justice," Iguaran said.

The AUC was an alliance of paramilitaries started by rich landlords to protect themselves from rebel attacks. Militias carried out massacres and land grabs in the name of defeating the left-wing rebels.

Chiquita, the world's largest banana producers, disclosed its payments to the U.S. Justice Department in 2003.

According to Chiquita's plea bargain, the company paid more than $1.7 million to the AUC since 1997. U.S. prosecutors said some payments were made after the AUC was designated a terrorist group by Washington in 2001.

Violence from Colombia's long-running conflict has ebbed since Uribe came to office in 2002 and began a security crackdown on illegal armed groups to push them back from urban areas.

Chiquita is not the only company accused of ties to paramilitaries. U.S. coal operator Drummond has a lawsuit filed against it on behalf of victims' families accusing the company of links to the paramilitary killing of three union workers. Drummond has strongly denied the charges.