Representatives of Del Monte Kenya have been accused of offering bribes in an attempt to cover up the circumstances in which four men died after going to steal pineapples from its farm in December.
The men’s bodies were recovered from a river on the vast plantation near Thika on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day last year. The four were part of a group of men who it is claimed were chased by the farm’s security guards after going to steal pineapples on 21 December.
An investigation by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has uncovered allegations that representatives of Del Monte Kenya made multiple attempts to bribe groups of men in the weeks after the deaths.
Men in the group who went to steal from the farm claimed in interviews and sworn statements that they saw their friends “brutally beaten” by guards with metal rods next to the pineapple field. They said two had been incapacitated when they were thrown in the river by guards and that another had had a stone thrown at his head as he tried to swim away.
In interviews and affidavits, representatives of Del Monte are also accused of offering jobs and money to those willing to make statements that the men simply drowned running away from a botched raid.
The Guardian has seen postmortems for two of the men, which conclude they died by drowning but also note injuries to the head, face and ribs consistent with blunt-force trauma, which one of the pathologists said could have been a factor in their drowning.
The men were Bernard Mutua, Francis Muimi, Mbae Murumbi and a fourth man known as Mkisii, whose body has yet to be identified or autopsied.
Del Monte Kenya, which supplies most British supermarkets, said in December that the men had gone into the river themselves and that there had been “no foul play”. It also said that CCTV showed the guards had stopped chasing them, but it has not shared the footage.
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 Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have now investigated nine deaths linked to Del Monte security guards since first reporting allegations of violence and killings in June last year. Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights is investigating the farm.
The latest deaths happened just weeks after Peter Mutuku Mutisya was found in a dam on the farm with evidence of injuries. A confidential report on human rights violations at the farm seen by the Guardian last month was highly critical and included claims that the company’s employees were working with a cartel of thieves, providing them with intelligence.
Men who took part in the 21 December raid claim that representatives of Del Monte made several attempts to gain their support in the weeks after their friends’ bodies were found. They claim the company’s representatives offered bribes to people in an attempt to persuade them to make statements supporting the farm’s version of events: that the men had drowned trying to cross the river while running away.
Michael, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said he had been sitting with friends in Gachagi, a slum near the farm, when they were approached by a Del Monte official and a village elder. He said they had come in a Del Monte Land Cruiser with two guards and offered cash and jobs to anyone who would come with them.
“With the promise of cash, 11 of us boarded,” Michael said. He said that once inside, a village elder had told them “we must speak united, that the story about people being killed was nonexistent” and that “the narrative would be that the four voluntarily jumped into the river”. He said this had been echoed by the Del Monte representative.
Michael said that when they stopped and got out at a nearby chief’s camp, they had been surprised to be joined by three police officers and Del Monte’s head of security. Michael said they had then been “required to write statements”, which many had protested against, “because we had only expected money and jobs”. He said four had complied.
In sworn affidavits, two other men, whom we are calling James and Peter, describe similar approaches by representatives of Del Monte. They have also signed affidavits saying they witnessed Del Monte guards beating men with metal rods, throwing two into the river and throwing stones at them as they struggled to swim.
James and Peter said they had been in a group in Gachagi when they were approached by Del Monte staff in a company vehicle. They said officials had been offering jobs, but first wanted to hear their version of the events on 21 December.
When one young man shouted that the four had drowned while trying to swim, one official said “he wanted people like him to employ”, the men allege. Their affidavits claim that the man who spoke up was not with them during the incident in which the four died.
Del Monte also paid for their own private pathologist to attend a postmortem into the December deaths – the same doctor who was at Peter Mutuku Mutisya’s postmortem and concluded there were no injuries. In a press conference after the autopsies, Dr Mutuma appeared to downplay the severity of the injuries, saying that the three young 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 to the postmortem, said that in addition to the other injuries noted, one of the victims had “injuries also on the chest, the left side of the chest … which we thought was due to some blunt trauma”.
He said these could have been caused by beating and that it was possible the injuries were a contributory factor to death by drowning, since they could have been prevented him from swimming effectively. He also noted that marks could be made to bodies after death if they hit objects in the water.