Strange Fruit

Guatemalan peasants murdered on Del Monte banana plantation

In February 2000, Del Monte sold plantation land that includes the Lankin acres to Producers and Exporters, or Prexa, for $315,000. BANDEGUA and Prexa are effectively the same company—they share the same attorneys, the same legal officers, and 100 percent of the bananas harvested by Prexa are sold to BANDEGUA.

Prexa then turned around and sold 1,850 acres of Lankin land in August 2002 to its current owner, the Bobos Cattle Company, for about $150,000, which amounts to about $82 per acre. Little is known about the Bobos Cattle Company—under Guatemalan law, the inner workings of private companies are mysteries—but witnesses say one of its apparent partners was present when Benjamín Pérez was murdered.

Fertile river-bottom land in Guatemala costs much more than $82 an acre—about 10 times as much, experts say. So why did Del Monte/Prexa sell its prized holding at such a discount? Consider the timing: Ten months before the sale, a hungry and determined bunch of peasants had taken up residence. The banana companies were eager to be rid of this nuisance—so, advocates argue, they turned to the ganaderos. And they didn't have to pay them; they just gave them cheap land and got out of the way.

Perhaps 50 children live in the campesino settlement, attending school in this ransacked shell of a hut.
photo: Matt Pacenza
Perhaps 50 children live in the campesino settlement, attending school in this ransacked shell of a hut.

"BANDEGUA is responsible for the violence," says Duarte. "But they put these other men on us so they won't get their hands dirty."

Adds Barrera, the government human rights lawyer, "The company BANDEGUA, so as not to directly confront the campesinos, has offered good prices, so that the ganaderos will act for them."

Fresh Del Monte Produce refused to respond to these allegations. Del Monte legal counsel Bruce Jordan told the Voice, "We don't comment on items like this."

Practically, there's little the Lankin peasants can do to fight off their eviction. Democratic institutions in Guatemala are weak. Judges, human rights lawyers, journalists, prosecutors, union activists, and campesino organizers in the Izabal region have all received death threats in 2003.

This climate leaves the Lankin campesinos with no obvious solution to the fear and violence that grip their daily lives. They know what they want—"a piece of land, to provide food for us, and food and education for our children," says Duarte—but achieving that seems nearly impossible. The peasants say they're not going anywhere, mostly because there's nowhere to go. "We'll stay with this struggle to the end," says farmer Adelmo López.

One slim possibility that could help the Lankin farmers is the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 law that allows non-U.S. citizens to sue for serious crimes like genocide, torture, and slavery. Over the past decade, suits against corporations accused of international crimes have flowered: Lawyers are going after ExxonMobil for torture, rape, and murder in Indonesia; Unocal for torture and murder in Burma; and Coca-Cola for murder in Colombia.

Most notably, the International Labor Rights Fund, on behalf of five SITRABI leaders who fled Guatemala for the United States, has sued Fresh Del Monte Produce in Florida. The lawsuit alleges that the $2 billion company conspired to kidnap, torture, and unlawfully detain the SITRABI leaders during the 1999 union hall takeover.

None of these efforts will go forward if the Bush administration has its way. In the Unocal case, which has proceeded the furthest, Attorney General Ashcroft filed a friend-of-the-court brief in May with the Ninth Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals, contending that Alien Tort suits hamper American foreign policy. "[I]t is the function of the political branches, not the courts, to respond" to human rights violations. He and his cohorts have even argued that the cases will impede the war on terror; in the ExxonMobil suit, they suggested it could cause the Indonesian government to stop cooperating with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.

For now, the Alien Tort suit filed on their behalf in Florida looks like the Lankin campesinos' best chance. They'd like to see Del Monte at least grant them land to live on and grow enough food to feed their families. But a distant court is unlikely to offer immediate help to these peasants, who face eviction any day. And murder every day.

"This community doesn't have a lot of time," says Bird, of Rights Action. "They're being killed pretty frequently."

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