Will Extradition Serve Justice Beyond U.S. Anti-Drug Aim?

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 23, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Early last week, the government of Colombia extradited 13 commanders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia to the United States. They are among the most feared men in Colombia, accused of unconscionable acts of torture, massacres and the displacement of entire villages.

Now in detention facilities across the United States, these paramilitary leaders await trial on charges of conspiracy to import or manufacture and distribute cocaine to the United States. The Justice Department said in a news release that it is pleased these men who "used the drug trade to ... poison Americans with multi-tons of cocaine" are being brought to justice.

And that should satisfy U.S. officials, who have long seen extradition as a major tool in the fight against drugs. Besides seeking long prison sentences against the accused, prosecutors say that the court proceedings often reveal new information about the drug trafficking business and the individuals involved.

But the larger question is whether Colombia's desire for justice will also be fulfilled. Will these leaders come clean about mass killings? Will they divulge who in Colombia's political and business establishment supported, or even encouraged, their activities? Will they be willing to pay reparations to the tens of thousands who claim to be victims of their crimes? In other words, will they be held accountable not only for what they did to Americans, but to Colombians?

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe believes all these questions have a better chance to be resolved now with the "paras" in the United States. In a speech announcing his decision to permit extradition, Uribe indicated that the process to bring them to justice in Colombia had bogged down. Many were not cooperating and all remained silent about returning illegally obtained properties meant to provide restitution for victims. Some, Uribe said, even continued to direct their criminal enterprises from prison.

Critics are skeptical and say that Uribe used extradition to get rid of controversial figures just as they were beginning to reveal some inconvenient truths. Several dozen politicians, including allies of Uribe, face charges for their alleged association with paramilitaries.

I asked several former federal prosecutors, attorneys who have defended others extradited on similar charges, and Colombian analysts how the U.S. criminal justice system might indeed serve Colombia's desire for justice.

If the paramilitary leaders decide they have nothing left to lose and "sing like a canary," as Colombia expert Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy put it, the so-called (BEG ITAL)parapolitica(END ITAL) scandal may continue to unfold. As part of an agreement between the two countries, Colombian prosecutors are expected to have access to the accused in order to continue trying to obtain confessions. Salvatore Mancuso, one of the most notorious leaders extradited, has already expressed interest to see a Colombian prosecutor "as soon as possible."

If the paras don't talk, however, U.S. prosecutors can offer reduced sentences as a legal incentive. To make sure that happens, the U.S. attorney general could issue a directive "instructing federal prosecutors to encourage" such bargaining, according to Kenneth Roth, a former federal prosecutor in New York and now executive director of Human Rights Watch. Roth requested exactly that in a letter sent last Friday to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

While the U.S. will pursue drug charges against all the paras, Roth and others agreed that they may be prosecuted for additional charges. For example, they could be charged with torture, much as Charles "Chuckie" Taylor Jr., son of the former Liberian strongman, is being prosecuted in Miami. He was initially charged with a U.S. immigration violation.

Another option open to U.S. prosecutors, according to Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., is to take advantage of these first-hand witnesses to pursue investigations into links between U.S. companies and paramilitaries in Colombia. In a 2007 guilty plea, Ohio-based Chiquita Brands International agreed to pay a $25 million fine for its payments to the self-defense group, which was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government in 2001.

So far, according to Colombian media, the victims have yet to see any of the $25 million. Similarly, Colombians may sense that their desire for closure has been further delayed by extradition. Clearly these processes take time and full justice may never come, but with the paramilitary leaders being prosecuted in the U.S., impunity seems today far less likely than ever before. And if the U.S. government seizes the opportunity, justice could well be served beyond its narrow desire to curb the illegal drug trade.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company