Security guards at a Del Monte pineapple farm in Kenya that supplies most British supermarkets have been accused of brutally assaulting and killing people suspected of trespassing on its land.
A joint investigation by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) has uncovered claims from villagers of violence by guards at the plantation in the last four years.
The vast plantation, which is estimated to cover at least 40 sq km, the area of a small city, is about an hour’s drive from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The farm has public roads going through it and directly employs 237 security guards.
Guards on the farm are typically armed with wooden clubs called rungus. Their use in security is legal and common in Kenya because of the risk of violent theft, including from young men who regularly go in organised groups to steal pineapples, but the claims suggest the guards’ use of violence has been excessive.
The scale of theft has resulted in clashes with guards, who have themselves been injured, including one reportedly losing an eye after a stone was thrown by a thief.
The claims of violence by Del Monte security guards over a number of years raise serious questions about the company’s processes and due diligence at the farm.
Del Monte said it took the allegations “extremely seriously” and has launched a “full and urgent” investigation into the claims. It said it is committed to international standards of human rights.
The farm, outside Thika, is the single largest exporter of Kenyan produce to the world, including the supply of tinned and fresh pineapple to supermarkets in the UK and elsewhere. Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Ocado and Morrisons are among the supermarkets that stock its fruit. Tesco said it had suspended orders on all products sourced from the farm until an investigation is concluded.
Mary Kambo, a programme manager at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, which says it has received multiple claims of violence at the plantation, said: “There has been real misery that is caused by this farm to local community members … It’s important that someone who is buying these pineapples knows about the allegations of violence connected to the farm.”
The Guardian and TBIJ investigated four deaths allegedly linked to Del Monte security guards:
John Rui Karia, 52, died having collapsed in prison last December of injuries. Four people allege he sustained the injuries a week earlier after allegedly being beaten and stamped on by Del Monte guards. He pleaded guilty to pineapple theft but witnesses claim he was resting by the roadside where he sold grass when drunk guards set upon him. Two people alleged he was unable to stand the next day and one of them said he saw him vomiting blood. A pathology report from Thika hospital, seen by the Guardian, gives the cause of death as “head injury due to multiple blunt force trauma to the head” with “abdominal and multiple soft tissue injuries”. A document from another doctor at Thika hospital says Karia was pronounced dead on arrival having “collapsed in the prison” with a “history of trauma about 1 week ago”. The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights is investigating his death.
Stephen Thuo Nyoike, 22, was found dead on the road running alongside Del Monte’s farm with his neck cut with a wire after going to steal pineapples on 30 August last year. A postmortem gives the cause of death as “pressure to the neck due to ligature strangulation” and “head injury due to blunt force trauma to the head”. Two individuals claimed he was last seen being beaten by Del Monte guards on the farm. One of the two alleged they watched from a bush as he was then carried motionless into the guards’ Land Cruiser.
Five Del Monte guards have been charged over the death of Bernard Murigi Wanginye, 26, who was allegedly beaten to death on the farm in 2019, according to court records. His body was found on the roadside after he went with a group of young men to steal pineapples. The five guards have been in prison awaiting trial for nearly four years, with no date yet set. Guards have also been accused of brutality dating back to 2013.
The body of Saidi Ngotho Ndungu, 27, was found in Del Monte’s dam a decade ago. Two friends said they were with Ndungu and were caught trespassing on the farm. A witness statement given to Kabati police station two days after the body was found claimed guards beat Ndungu with wooden clubs and that he was heard pleading with them not to kill him. The witness said they then heard something being thrown into the dam, according to the statement. Another witness, who also gave a police statement, told the Guardian he last saw Ndungu being beaten by Del Monte guards after they had chased the three of them through the farm. His death certificate gives drowning as the cause.
A law firm, Leigh Day, has written to Del Monte on behalf of 134 villagers living near the farm seeking compensation for “serious human rights abuses” allegedly carried out by security staff deployed on the pineapple plantation over the past decade.
The letter includes claims of five deaths, including the deaths of Karia, Nyoike and Wanginye, as well as five rapes, plus allegations of serious injuries, including head wounds, broken bones and cuts from blades requiring stitches since 2013.
Some alleged victims say they were indiscriminately attacked by guards while travelling on public roads through or near Del Monte land.
Passengers travelling by minibus returning from a dowry party on 25 September 2021 allege that they were set upon by guards when it broke down on a public road through the farm.
Three of the 14 passengers spoke to the Guardian about the incident, claiming the group were beaten by Del Monte guards with rungus. Records show the alleged attack was reported to police as being by Del Monte guards and hospital documents record injuries including one of the passengers breaking his leg.
Local police are accused of turning a blind eye to the incident. One of the minibus passengers, a 50-year-old man who said he was unable to work for seven months after his leg was broken, said it was reported to police but never investigated further. “They don’t like following up on justice. They only give you [a form to fill out] and that’s all,” he said.
A senior local police source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described a Del Monte guard losing an eye after having a stone thrown at him by pineapple thieves. The source alleged guards “use excessive force”, adding: “You are not supposed to beat somebody.”
Alice Wambui, 67, lost her son Bernard Murigi, a labourer who worked in a quarry within the farm, in 2019. Five of the farm’s guards were charged with his murder. They were sacked by Del Monte but four years on there is still no sign of a trial. She said: “There’s no justice at all for Bernard.”
It is understood that Del Monte says it has improved its security and safety practices since Wanginye’s death in 2019. Planned or implemented improvements are said to include updated radio communications systems, training guards in new formal rules of engagement and enhanced formal processes around allegations of violence.
Leigh Day partner Richard Meeran, who represents the villagers seeking compensation, said: “Our clients’ allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by Del Monte’s security guards in Kenya entail a level and pattern of violence, brutality and humiliation that is widespread and gut-wrenching. It is right that these allegations, and Del Monte’s responsibility for them, are tested in court.”
A Tesco spokesperson said: “We are shocked and appalled to learn of these allegations on Del Monte’s Thika farm in Kenya. We have therefore taken the decision to immediately suspend Del Monte fruit products sourced from this farm pending a thorough and credible investigation into these claims.
“Any form of human rights abuse is clearly unacceptable and we expect our suppliers to protect the welfare of everyone working in our supply chains, as well as respecting the human rights of the communities in which they operate.”
Waitrose said it expected all its suppliers to comply with its strict ethical standards and was liaising closely with Del Monte to determine what actions it has been taking. It welcomed the company’s commissioning of an independent review to investigate the allegations.
Sophie de Salis, sustainability policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, which represents UK supermarkets, said: “We welcome Del Monte’s investigation into these appalling allegations to delve deeper into the broader context of these crimes and commitment to constant improvements in working practices. Protecting the welfare of workers and respecting communities in supply chains is fundamental to our members’ sourcing practices and any practices falling short of our high standards are not tolerated.”
A spokesperson for Fresh Del Monte said: “We take these allegations extremely seriously and have instituted a full and urgent investigation into them. The conduct alleged in these cases is in clear violation of Fresh Del Monte’s longstanding commitment to human rights and the comprehensive policies and procedures we have in place to ensure our operations respect the dignity of all individuals.
“Our proactive investigations continue and will be supported by an independent review by a specialist human rights consultancy. We continue to fully support the Kenyan authorities’ investigations, including into the death of John Rui Karia. We are committed to constant improvements in the way we operate to adhere to the highest international human rights standards in all our businesses.”
The Kenya police service did not respond to requests for comment.