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Extradited Colombian death-squad leaders leave valuable information behind

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By Diana Carolina Durán Núñez
El Espectador de Bogotá, Bogotá
Friday, December 18, 2009; 1:28 PM

WASHINGTON -- Amid a flurry of secret dealings, 14 former Colombian paramilitary commanders accused of drug trafficking left Bogotá in the predawn hours of May 13, 2008, headed for the United States under an extradition pact. Along with another former commander extradited the preceding week and two more in 2009, a total of 17 leaders of the right-wing death squads were taken from the country.

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The events went largely unnoticed in the United States, but were devastating for Colombia. The reason? Although their extraditions were related to drug trafficking affecting the United States, these were the same men who had been masterminds in Colombia's internal armed conflict for two decades.

Their crimes had important implications for the United States and Colombia, although not in the same way. For Colombia, the men were privy to invaluable inside information about the conflict: about the Colombian army officials who might have assisted them; the political leaders who might have turned a blind eye to their crimes or, worse, turned to paramilitaries in their bids for power; and about the people, corporations, civil organizations, and even U.S. multinational corporations that might have funded their activities, including Chiquita Brands, which in 2007 agreed to pay $25 million in fines for making payments to the paramilitary groups officially labeled terrorists by the U.S. government.

Those developments attracted little attention in the United States. What mattered in Washington were the drug trafficking charges. Never mind that the same paramilitary groups also had used violence to take control of key Colombian areas, illicit crops and routes for moving cocaine to the United States, along with connections to sell it and flood the country with drugs. U.S. authorities quickly detected this perverse amalgam, which had begun in the 1990s, and accelerated the reinstatement of an extradition treaty with Colombia signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. The agreement had been suspended from 1991 to 1997, after Colombia changed its constitution.

On May 13 of last year, William R. Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, declared at a news conference in Bogotá that the death squads' victims, their representatives and Colombian prosecutors would have access to the U.S. legal system and to the extradited individuals. Brownfield said there would be court-to-court cooperation; that "any citizen in the world" would have access to the trials; that information and evidence would be shared with the Colombian authorities; and that the U.S. government would try to make the extradited men available to Colombian prosecutors working under that country's Justice and Peace Law.

The Justice and Peace Law was the legal framework established by the Colombian government for the demobilization of paramilitary groups. Approved in 2005, it required demobilized individuals to acknowledge all of the crimes of which they were aware, in exchange for prison sentences not to exceed eight years.

Those statements, indeed, have led investigators to the locations of mass graves, to solve the questions of what happened to people who were missing, and to identify connections that the paramilitaries had with high-level employees, members of the Colombian military and politicians. The investigations have helped the attorney general's office to launch extensive probes, and several members of Colombia's Congress implicated by the statements have been convicted.

It was no wonder that the victims and Colombian judicial officials became concerned when they heard of the extraditions: How would the truth ever become known, they wondered, if those closest to it had left Colombia?

This article is drawn from interviews in October and November, in Washington and in Bogotá, with U.S. and Colombian attorneys for six of the extradited paramilitaries; U.S. prosecutors; Colombian Supreme Court judges; and an official in the Justice and Peace unit of the attorney general's office. It also incorporates previous statements from death squad leaders and U.S. and Colombian officials. Some of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss matters on the record. U.S. District Court records in New York, Texas and the District of Columbia also were examined.

Despite Ambassador Brownfield's promises a year-and-a-half ago, the intent of the Justice and Peace Law has, in fact, been stymied by the extraditions. To date, only four of the 17 extradited individuals have cooperated with the Colombian justice system through videoconferences conducted in U.S. federal courts: Salvatore Mancuso; Rodrigo Tovar Pupo (a.k.a. "Jorge 40"); Ramiro "Cuco" Vanoy; and Diego Fernando Murillo (a.k.a. "Don Berna"). Neither the victims nor the Colombian attorney general's office were represented at these hearings, and consequently there was no opportunity to confront these witnesses as would have been possible in a Colombian court. Brownfield declined a request to be interviewed for this article.

"Our concern is only for the crimes that affected the American people. We haven't received any instruction to obtain statements about other types of crimes," said a prosecutor from the U.S. Narcotics and Dangerous Drug Section who is involved in the matter and asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak about it.

"If the person wishes to discuss his crimes in Colombia, the U.S. prosecutors will take the testimony. But if the detainee doesn't bring up those issues, the prosecutors do not address them," said Manuel Retrueta, the attorney for lawyer representing Juan Carlos "El Tuso" Sierra, whose case demonstrates the complex nature of the demobilization process.

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