U.S. Counter-Narcotics Interests Killing Colombian Victims’ Hope


By Michael Reed-Hurtado

[[{"fid":835,"view_mode":"media_medium","attributes":{"title":"AUC combatants patrol a paramilitary-controlled barrio in Medellen, Colombia, July 2002. FERNANDO VERGARA\/AFP\/Getty Images","class":"format-media_medium align-right"}}]]As the United States and Colombia near the signing of a free-trade agreement and resolve differences over labor rights and other issues, the problematic extraditions of paramilitaries accused of savage crimes committed during the years of counter-insurgency remain far from the spotlight.

Conflict, drugs and confessions

Three years have passed since some of those suspected of being Colombia’s most notorious war criminals were extradited to the U.S. on drug charges. As time passes, Colombian victims’ hopes for truth and justice for the mass atrocities perpetrated over the last decades by these same men are diminishing.

Colombia endures one of the most gruesome and long-standing armed conflicts in the Western Hemisphere, with several guerrilla groups (mainly the FARC-EP and the ELN) waging war against the state. The conflict’s dynamics are also intertwined with the thriving business of narcotics. Beginning in the 1960s, insurgent and counter-insurgent actions have left tens of thousands dead and disappeared and over three million internally displaced. As part of its response to guerrilla tactics, the state promoted the creation of paramilitary groups whose actions resulted in egregious and massive violations against the civilian population.

Some of Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries demobilized between 2003 and 2006, after striking a deal with the government. According to this deal, demobilized combatants would participate in a special judicial process and confess their criminal involvement in the perpetration of mass violations of human rights in exchange for greatly reduced prison terms. Though the formula of these special criminal proceedings was flawed and alleged perpetrators toyed with the system, long-denied truth about the role of the paramilitary groups in atrocities and state complicity are finally emerging. As a result, expectations of justice for human rights violations and war crimes have been heightened.

As part of the confessional proceedings in Colombia, some of the demobilized paramilitaries are hesitantly accepting responsibility for their crimes and at times naming names of those most responsible. Ties between paramilitary forces and the military, political figures and business elite are surfacing. Some of the right-wing paramilitaries are providing convincing evidence and contributing to the conviction of their cohorts in crime, including high-ranking military officers, more than a dozen congresspersons and heads of intelligence agencies.

As a consequence of these confessions, the Colombian Prosecutor General now acknowledges that paramilitary forces killed over 45,000 persons and have disappeared over 4,300, and has affirmed these cases need to be brought to justice. Ten years ago this type of official recognition would have been out of the question.

Blow to truth-telling

Just as the process began to make headway in uncovering some truth, strikingly, on May 5, 2008, the first paramilitary boss participating in the process—nom de guerre “Macaco”—was extradited to the U.S. on drug charges. Despite victims’ protests and legal challenges, one week later a dozen other paramilitary bosses were put on a plane in the middle of the night, including top commander Salvatore Mancuso. On May 14, 2008, Colombians woke up to find the most widely recognized war crimes suspects in their country were gone, with the incentives for their confessions drastically altered in a major blow to the truth-telling mechanism.

Almost one year later, in March 2009, the U.S. received Ever Veloza, a.k.a. “HH,” one of the paramilitary leaders contributing most significantly with testimonial evidence regarding the structures supporting the right-wing paramilitaries. Veloza confessed to hundreds of crimes and provided precise information regarding the killing machine, including the names of the military officers that collaborated with the paramilitary groups in the banana-growing region of Urabá. The Colombian government provided no explanations for granting the U.S. this extradition, or for the timing.

Since the extraditions, the most senior commanders extradited have ceased confessing all together. Some have been willing to accept charges for confessions provided prior to their extradition, but with the confession process incomplete, they now demand guarantees before providing any new information. Their attention is set on striking the best deal possible with U.S. prosecutors on the drug charges.

At the outset of the extraditions, spokespersons of both governments made public promises that Colombian proceedings would continue, that the victims would have access to the extraditees and that all assets of these individuals would go towards providing reparations to victims in Colombia. Yet no immediate arrangement was made to this end. On July 2010, after more than two years of public pressure, the U.S. and Colombia agreed to an “access plan” to facilitate contact between Colombian authorities and the extradited members of the paramilitary forces. The plan covers 11 of the total 29 right-wing paramilitaries in the U.S.—excluding three key commanders—but is completely contingent on their individual interest in participating.

The U.S. invests heavily in Colombia and is hoping to clear a free trade agreement in the coming months. U.S. aid to the Colombian government is the highest in the hemisphere and Colombia is its strongest ally in counter-narcotics efforts.

These men are drug kingpins—it cannot be forgotten. However, U.S. interest in this fact must not trump the claims of Colombian victims to the truth and justice.

Both countries have the obligation to ensure the prosecution of war crimes committed in Colombia is a priority. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp repeatedly emphasized the strong commitment of the current administration to the principle of accountability. The U.S. contributes abundant resources to strengthen accountability in Colombia and manifests that war crimes cannot be tolerated.

The contribution of these paramilitaries to the pursuit of truth and justice for human rights violations and war crimes needs to be revitalized. U.S. prosecutors and judges can and should condition plea bargaining and sentencing for drug charges to ongoing collaboration in the Colombian heinous crimes cases. The secrecy that characterizes all dealings with these ex-combatants should be lifted; transparency as a central value in the administration of justice should be re-instituted. Victims and the public have a right to know.

Should Colombian authorities fail in prosecuting the paramilitary commanders held in U.S. prisons, the Department of Justice should seek to apply the U.S. federal statutes that allow for the investigation and prosecution of human rights violations committed abroad. This line of action would be consistent with the “no safe haven” for war criminals policy strongly supported by the U.S. government, but would require the support of the Colombian government.

Three years later, it is high time for aggressive action. Colombian victims are waiting.