When Chiquita Brands International pleaded guilty last year to violating anti-terrorism lawsand was fined $25 million for its payments to Colombian terroristsTania Julin and Nancy Hamm felt betrayed and angry.
Though Chiquita's plea did not involve the group that murdered their husbands 12 years ago, the women learned through the case that Chiquita had also paid protection money to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
"I believe they need to be held accountable," said Hamm, who retired from New Tribes Mission (NTM) last year. "This affected us in a horrible way, but I think it could affect a lot of other Americans, too, if Chiquita or other American companies continue to blatantly fund terrorists."
Julin, Hamm, and three other widows are among the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed March 11. The suit alleges Chiquita is culpable in the deaths of their husbands, all of whom were NTM missionaries. FARC kidnapped and later killed the men in a pair of 199394 incidents in Columbia and Panama.
According to the suit, the Cincinnati-based company provided money, weapons, and other support to FARC. The suit asks that compensation be determined through a jury trial.
Sanford, Floridabased NTM, which is also a plaintiff in the case, pulled some personnel out of Latin America after the kidnappings. Spokesperson Nita Zelenak said NTM prefers not to specify exact locations of its 3,200 missionaries, who serve in more than 18 nations. But if any are seized, she said, NTMlike many other mission agenciesmaintains a "no ransom" policy, because it provides a safeguard against more personnel being taken.
"We're always looking at the safety issue, and as the climate changes, we have to change with it," Zelenak said. "We're definitely careful to let missionaries know of the potential dangers."
Chiquita has defended its actions as the cost of doing business and protecting its employees in Colombia. Spokesman Ed Loyd said terrorists murdered 30 of its people in the 1990s.
"This wasn't a philosophical threat," Loyd said. "This was a situation where a large number of our employees were killed. Thirty is what I'm aware of, but frankly there may be others."
Nor did Chiquita try to hide its actions, Loyd said. After becoming aware of a change in federal law in 2001, he said Chiquita notified the U.S. Department of Justice about its payments. That sparked a four-year-long investigation, which culminated in the company's guilty plea last year.
Despite that plea, Loyd said the plaintiffs face a high standard of proof. They must demonstrate Chiquita's conduct actually caused the deaths, he saidsomething he doesn't think the former missionaries will be able to do.
The status of the court case is unclear. At least half a dozen lawsuits filed against Chiquita by Columbian victims of terrorism have been combined for further action, but the missionaries' suit isn't among them.
Regardless of the outcome, Mercer University ethics professor David Gushee said the case should give pause to both sides. As they examine the consequences of forays into remote regions, he said, corporate leaders would be wise to ask what potential harm could result and what non-business values are at stake.
"The more economic pressure that a corporation feels they are facing, the more likely they will be to cut moral corners," said Gushee.
However, Gushee also said that missions agencies need to clearly communicate risks to their personnel.
While Julin said none of the widows are bitter about the dangers that ultimately ended their husbands' lives, she does hope that winning the lawsuit will pose a warning to companies tempted to do business with terrorists.