By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
MEDELLIN, Colombia -- In a small courtroom here, Ever Veloza has over the past year confessed to nearly 1,000 slayings in Colombia's conflict and recounted how the death squads he helped run were supported by army officers and prominent politicians.
Veloza, 41, has been among two dozen top commanders to have participated in what is known here as the "Justice and Peace" process, special judicial proceedings designed to unravel the origins of Colombia's paramilitary movement. His testimony has helped authorities uncover crimes and open investigations to ferret out collaborators.
Now, Veloza may be extradited to the United States -- not for the war crimes to which he has confessed but to face cocaine-trafficking charges in New York federal court. Perhaps more than anyone else, he knows what that would mean for investigators who have been working for years to understand the intricacies of a coalition of paramilitary groups known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
"If I get extradited, the Justice and Peace process ends there, because the foot soldiers do not know anything," Veloza said in a four-hour jailhouse interview with The Washington Post last month. "If I go, then the story of the Self-Defense Forces is incomplete."
Fifteen other top paramilitary commanders have been extradited to the United States, raising major concerns among Colombian investigators, victims' rights groups and organizations such as Human Rights Watch, all of whom say complex investigations into paramilitary crimes are being thrown into disarray. With nearly all of the top commanders in U.S. jails, they argue, Colombian detectives and prosecutors have lost their most knowledgeable sources of information about paramilitary groups.
"I see this with huge and profound concern, because it could leave many cases in impunity," said one senior Colombian investigator, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
He spoke of one extradited commander, Ramiro "Cuco" Vanoy, who had admitted to dozens of murders each time he testified in Colombia, leaving investigators thirsting for more testimony. "That has been overshadowed," the investigator said, "by the hastiness to resolve one problem -- and that problem is drug trafficking."
Indeed, the paramilitary groups for years smuggled cocaine in massive quantities to fund their war against Marxist rebels. But critics of the extraditions say such trafficking was far less pernicious than the war crimes that terrorized Colombia for a generation.
According to President Álvaro Uribe, those who have been extradited so far to the United States were sent only after they failed to cooperate with Colombian investigators. The Bush administration has touted the extraditions as a bold move by Uribe, Washington's closest ally in Latin America; his government has already extradited nearly 700 Colombians to the United States -- most of them low- and mid-level drug traffickers.
Critics of the Uribe administration, however, charge that the president shipped the commanders north to squelch testimony that had begun to link military officers and some elite members of society with death squad commanders. In fact, testimony by commanders has helped propel investigations that have put 33 members of Congress, most of them allies of Uribe, behind bars, while tarnishing the reputations of generals close to the president.
In an interview, Colombian Attorney General Mario Iguarán said the judicial proceedings against the commanders had been producing vital evidence. "There were surely other reasons for the extraditions," Iguarán said, "but it wasn't because Justice and Peace was not providing results."
The extraditions have sparked a heated debate in this country, with pundits and politicians accusing the Bush administration of sidestepping Colombian interests.
American officials have responded by trying to reassure outraged Colombians. Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, said that commanders extradited to the United States have "been made available to cooperate, if they choose to do so, in Colombian cases, including making statements as defendants or witnesses to Colombian judicial officials."
Still, even within Uribe's government, some officials have expressed concern that U.S. courts will reward commanders for cooperating on drug investigations but do little to spur their assistance in resolving politically motivated crimes in Colombia.
"We are very worried," Vice President Francisco Santos said this month in his office, wondering whether the use of extraditions could become counterproductive for Colombia. "We don't understand how a tool that is supposed to be used to punish could be used in a process of negotiations."
The commanders, now held in jails in Washington, Miami and New York, are represented by American defense attorneys who said in interviews that they want to negotiate deals with the United States. Under the deals, their clients would provide Colombian investigators with information, and U.S. courts would take that cooperation into account when they are sentenced. Colombia would also shield the commanders from charges here once they are released from American jails.
Joaquín Pérez, a Miami lawyer who represents top commander Salvatore Mancuso, said the commanders face prison terms that easily surpass 30 years. "The only way this will work is if they have an incentive that by continuing in the process, they get some recognition," said Perez, who for years has represented paramilitary commanders in negotiations with U.S. officials.
The Justice Department declined to comment about the kind of deals that could be offered to the commanders, who face mandatory minimum sentences.
But three former federal prosecutors said that the Justice Department could file motions permitting judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum -- which, for instance, is 10 years for conspiracy to import five kilograms of cocaine -- if the commanders provide "substantial assistance" for investigators working other cases. That ruling could be made to encompass the atrocities committed in Colombia, the prosecutors say.
"If they're involved in really bad things, enormous atrocities, and they can cooperate against similarly situated people in the hierarchy, then maybe that's something the government would be interested in," said Anthony S. Barkow, a former federal prosecutor who directs New York University's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law.
When paramilitary commanders decided to disband thousands of fighters earlier this decade and engage the government in talks designed to win lenient punishment, they did not think they would wind up in the United States, said Juan Rubbini, a former adviser to Mancuso who lives in Medellin. To the commanders, Rubbini said, Uribe was a politician whose tough, anti-guerrilla position clearly paralleled theirs.
"Did they expect something soft?" Rubbini said. "Sure."
Under the government's initial Justice and Peace Law, approved by Congress in 2005, commanders received generous benefits for demobilizing. But then the Constitutional Court struck down several provisions in 2006 and required that commanders pay reparations to victims and confess to their crimes, or risk losing benefits.
Some commanders barely acknowledged their role in well-known atrocities. Others have never stopped talking. In May, Uribe astonished his countrymen by extraditing the 15 top commanders. Only a handful of commanders with the same knowledge remain in Colombia.
None has elaborated as much as Veloza, who joined the paramilitary movement as a foot soldier and later became the head of two powerful, well-trained militias.
Since he began testifying, he has outlined how retired Gen. Rito Alejo del Río carefully coordinated operations with paramilitary commanders and how foreign companies hired paramilitary groups to kill and intimidate union workers. The militias he ran killed 6,000 people, the attorney general's office said.
In the interview, Veloza said he expected to be extradited -- a possibility that may be delayed six months after Iguarán pleaded with the government to hold off. "My position there will be the same: to talk there about everything I know," Veloza said.
Veloza spoke about the evolution of paramilitarism into widespread savagery, such as beheading villagers. Though many commanders have said the violence was necessary to push back the rebels, Veloza estimated that 90 percent of victims had no ties to guerrillas.
"You have to now just tell the truth," he said. "We are not victims. We are victimizers."
Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber in Washington contributed to this report.