Colombia's foreign minister says the government of President Alvaro Uribe will support any attempt by prosecutors to secure the extradition of current or former associates of a U.S. company that has admitted to making payments to a right-wing paramilitary group in the country. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where the minister addressed the Organization of American States Wednesday.
Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo came to Washington amid a controversy surrounding U.S.-based fruit giant Chiquita Brands International, whose operations in Colombia focus on banana production through a local subsidiary. Earlier this week, Chiquita pled guilty in U.S. court to making payments totaling $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Force of Colombia, a right-wing militia accused of committing horrific human rights abuses while battling leftist guerrillas. The company will pay a $25 million fine for having supported a group the U.S. government lists as a terrorist organization.
But if Chiquita has made peace with the U.S. justice system, the company remains in the crosshairs of Colombia's chief prosecutor, who says he will demand the extradition of eight people accused of taking part in the Chiquita payments scandal.
Speaking with reporters after addressing the OAS, Foreign Minister Araujo said the Colombian government supports all efforts by the country's judicial branch to bring criminals to justice.
He said, "if the prosecutor asks for extradition of any foreigner in any country in the world, we in the government, in the foreign ministry will support the request and will pursue the matter with the corresponding [foreign] government."
But if Colombian officials are angry over Chiquita's financial dealings with paramilitaries, they have not soured on overall commercial contacts with the United States. The United States and Colombia have negotiated a bilateral free trade accord, and Araujo said he came to Washington to lobby U.S. senators to ratify the pact.
He said, "That is why we are here in Washington: to push for the free trade accord, which we view as an opportunity for economic growth. We are explaining to U.S. legislators the importance of having a formal arrangement that will permit greater investment in Colombia, create more jobs, and overcome the effects of poverty."
The trade deal was negotiated while Republican allies of President Bush controlled the U.S. Congress. Opposition Democrats now hold majorities in both chambers of the legislature, and Senate leaders have yet to schedule a vote on the accord.