08.02.24 Environment

Del Monte accused of bribing witnesses to pineapple farm deaths

Content warning: This story contains descriptions of graphic violence.

Representatives of the food giant Del Monte have been accused of offering bribes in an attempt to cover up the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four men on a company farm in Kenya.

An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and the Guardian has uncovered claims that apparent representatives of the company made multiple approaches to witnesses of a December 2023 confrontation between Del Monte guards and pineapple thieves that led to the deaths of four men. Three people approached allege that Del Monte staff offered money and jobs in exchange for signing statements that supported the company’s version of events.

According to affidavits and interviews, witnesses to the December incident say the four men were caught by Del Monte guards and “brutally beaten”. Two were then thrown into a nearby river while the other two attempted to swim away and were pelted with stones by guards, witnesses say. The bodies of all four were later retrieved from the river.

Del Monte has previously said that the four men ran towards the river and there was “no foul play” on the company’s part. The three postmortems conducted to date conclude the men died by drowning but two, seen by TBIJ, detail multiple injuries. The men were Bernard Mutua, Francis Muimi, Mbae Murumbi and a fourth man known only as Mkisii, in reference to his tribe in western Kenya, whose body has yet to be identified or autopsied.

The company said it had evidence to contradict the accounts provided by the witnesses. In a statement, Del Monte said: “We have submitted our evidence, which contradicts the information you have presented, to the appropriate legal authorities.”

The latest claims follow a major joint investigation by TBIJ and the Guardian that uncovered numerous allegations of violence and killings by Del Monte security guards over the course of a decade. They also come after the recent death of Peter Mutuku Mutisya, whose body was found in a dam on the farm in November, when questions were raised over Del Monte’s involvement in the postmortem process.

Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights is investigating the farm.

The four men whose bodies were found in December had been missing since they went to the Del Monte farm to steal pineapples as part of a large group days earlier.

In the weeks after the incident, witnesses have told TBIJ they were approached by Del Monte staff who were promising jobs and money for those willing to provide statements saying that the men jumped into the river voluntarily and drowned trying to swim across.

Michael* said he was sitting with a group of friends near the Gachagi slums on 4 January when they were approached by a Del Monte official and a village elder. Nearby was a Del Monte land cruiser with two guards inside. “With the promise of cash, 11 of us boarded,” Michael said. Inside the car, they were told that the narrative would be that the four voluntarily jumped into the river.

When they got out, they were joined by three police officers. With Del Monte’s head of security also present, Michael said, they were “required to write statements”. Most of the group did not but four complied.

A similar incident is described by two more men in official witness statements expected to be submitted as part of an upcoming claim against Del Monte in the Kenyan high court.

In their sworn affidavits, James* and Peter* say they were part of a group of people who were approached in Gachagi by Del Monte staff in a company vehicle. The officials were offering the men jobs but first wanted to know their version of the pineapple raid.

When one of the group shouted that the four had drowned while trying to swim, one official said “he wanted people like him to employ”, Peter and James allege. Both affidavits note that the man who spoke up was not a witness to the December incident.

James told TBIJ that Del Monte staff members said they were recruiting men for harvesting jobs at a wage of 700KES (about £3.50) per day – which he said is higher than the normal rate.

“They kept asking for those who can testify that the four jumped into the river, tried to swim like the rest then drowned,” James said. He says he did not sign the forms and that most of those who did “had not been with us on the day”.

James told TBIJ that he went to the pineapple farm on 21 December to steal fruit as part of a group of around 20 men that included the four victims. They had timed the raid to coincide with the guards’ change of shifts, around 1pm, but a vehicle arrived on the scene when they were still there.

He described the group being confronted by around eight guards who were shouting and “wielding metal bars”. When more guards emerged, James jumped into the river to escape along with most of the other men. Those who could not swim hid in the bushes.

After swimming to the other side, James says he saw guards “combing the bushes” and finding the four men, who they “beat with the metal rods”.

James and Peter’s affidavits both describe two of the men being “brutally beaten” and thrown into the river. One says they were unconscious when they were thrown in. Both say the other two men tried to swim across the river while “guards threw stones at them”, and they struggled due to their injuries. Both James and Peter dived back into the river to try and help but could not overcome the current.

Postmortem reports appear to support the eyewitness accounts. One report, seen by TBIJ, details “superficial soft tissue injuries due to multiple blunt force trauma”. Injuries are clearly visible in photos seen by TBIJ of the same body shortly after it was recovered from the water. Pathologists gave the cause of the three deaths as drowning. The fourth postmortem has not been carried out as the victim is yet to be formally identified.

Del Monte paid for a private pathologist, Dr Geoffrey Mutuma, to attend the postmortems – the same doctor who was at Mutisya’s postmortem in November, where he had concluded there were no injuries. Mutuma said the three men “died because of drowning and the injuries could not have actually resulted to [sic] death”.

Dr Bernard Midia, a pathologist sent by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, told TBIJ that one of the bodies had sustained “injuries also on the chest, the left side of the chest … which we thought was due to some blunt trauma”. He said that it was possible the injuries prevented the men from swimming effectively and contributed to them drowning but that it is “difficult to determine that with certainty”.

Benjamin Mwandikwa Kilule, the brother of one of the deceased, told TBIJ that his brother’s body had injury marks and “the ribs looked like he had been pricked”. He said that if his brother was in the wrong, “they should have just arrested him”.

The mother of another of the deceased, Roda Wayua Kimeu, said she thought Del Monte’s representative at the postmortem “was there to distort the truth or influence the story around my son’s death”. Mutuma did not directly respond to this suggestion.

Police in Kenya have said they are investigating the deaths but did not respond to a request for comment. In response to earlier allegations of violence by Del Monte guards, the company said that it took such allegations “extremely seriously” and that they were in “clear violation” of its “longstanding commitment to human rights” and the policies and procedures it has in place.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

Main image: Pineapples being sold on the street near Del Monte's farm in Thika, central Kenya. Credit: Brian Otieno for the Guardian/TBIJ

Reporters: Edwin Okoth, Grace Murray and Emily Dugan
Environment editor: Robert Soutar
Deputy editors
: Katie Mark and Chrissie Giles
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Simon Lock

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