U.S. Extraditions Raise Concerns in Colombia
Death Squad Cases at Risk, Critics Say
Tuesday, August 19, 2008; Page A01
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.