Mr. Uribe's Send-Off

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

WHEN COLOMBIA'S democratically elected Congress approved a plan by President Álvaro Uribe in 2005 to demobilize right-wing paramilitary groups and bring their top leaders to justice, human rights groups and some congressional Democrats in the United States declared themselves outraged. Though the paramilitaries were a principal source of the violence and drug-trafficking that have plagued Colombia for decades -- and the demobilization of tens of thousands of lawless gunmen could be a breakthrough in the effort to restore order -- the American critics said Mr. Uribe was extending overly generous terms to the top leaders. In a 2006 letter to Mr. Uribe, Human Rights Watch said its No. 1 objection to the plan was that it "could allow paramilitary commanders to avoid spending any time in prison."

In particular, Human Rights Watch and congressional Democrats with whom it closely collaborates objected that right-wing leaders could escape extradition to the United States on drug-trafficking charges. Some hinted that Mr. Uribe's real intention was to protect the paramilitaries from that prospect. "This is music to the ears of these thugs," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, in July 2005. "What they fear most is extradition." A year later, in a tough letter to Mr. Uribe, Mr. Vivanco demanded that "paramilitary commanders who are wanted in the United States should know that if they fail to fully demobilize and dismantle their structures, your government will not hesitate to extradite them to the United States. . . . It is essential that your government keep this leverage and use it credibly."

On Tuesday, Mr. Uribe did just as Mr.

Vivanco asked, sending 14 of the most important paramilitary chiefs to the United States for trial. He did so, he said, because the bosses had failed to meet the terms of the country's Justice and Peace Law by disclosing their crimes and making reparations to their victims, and because they were continuing to engage in criminal conspiracies. The president's dramatic move was hailed in Colombia: Analysts said he had dealt a paralyzing blow to what remains of the paramilitary groups. Those who remain -- there are 639 leaders still in Colombian prisons -- are likely to prove more willing to disclose past crimes and cooperate in investigations of connections between the paramilitaries and Colombian politicians.

Yet in Washington, Mr. Uribe's coup was received sourly by the same people who called for it. A Human Rights Watch statement grudgingly acknowledged that the extradition "increases the odds" of "substantial prison sentences" for the bosses but then claimed that Mr. Uribe had short-circuited investigations that touched on political allies. "The government has shipped the men with the most information out of the country," complained -- yes -- Mr. Vivanco.

In fact, under the terms worked out by Mr. Uribe's government, Colombian prosecutors will continue to have access to the paramilitary commanders in U.S. prisons. Having been subjected to the fate they "fear most," the bosses will presumably be happy to provide any incriminating information they may have on the president. In the meantime, Human Rights Watch and its congressional partners are running out of excuses for their campaign against the U.S. free-trade agreement with Colombia. The murders of "trade unionists" they decried have drastically decreased; the paramilitary leaders they claimed would go free are in U.S. custody. If their agenda is genuinely human rights -- and not opposition to free trade -- it's time for them to change course.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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