Colombian warlords sent to U.S. for trial

May 13, 2008 1:40:05 PM PDT
Colombia extradited 14 paramilitary warlords to the United States on Tuesday on drug-related charges in a surprise move that brought praise from Washington but raised fears that justice will be thwarted for thousands of victims. Those extradited in the pre-dawn operation include Salvatore Mancuso and most other leaders of Colombia's illegal right-wing militias - notorious figures blamed for some of modern Colombia's worst atrocities, including the deaths of at least 10,000 people.

Victims' families fear that once the warlords are in U.S. prisons, it will be more difficult to get them to confess to human rights violations and reveal details of their connections to Colombian politicians.

But U.S. officials vowed Tuesday to cooperate with Colombian prosecutors in any and all investigations, and President Alvaro Uribe said any international assets seized from the warlords by the United States would go to compensate the victims.

"It's a great day," U.S. drug czar John Walters told The Associated Press. He said the U.S. justice system is "far less likely for them to be able to attack or intimidate or corrupt."

Uribe said the militia bosses were extradited for continuing to commit crimes from prison, failing to "duly cooperate" with prosecutors and neglecting "to compensate victims - hiding assets and delaying their delivery."

"The country has been generous with them but the government can't tolerate a relapse into crime," he said national address.

The U.S. charges, some of which remain in sealed indictments, apparently are limited to drug trafficking and related violence.

There is indication that the United States will prosecute the warlords for massacres and other rights violations.

Under a 2003 peace pact, the militia leaders were supposed to confess to all their crimes, surrender ill-gotten riches and halt illegal activities in exchange for reduced jail terms and protection from extradition.

Victims' relatives fear it will be more difficult to obtain confessions and cross-examine the warlords, meaning their rich and powerful accomplices can now more easily evade justice.

Some 31 members of Colombia's 268-seat congress, almost all of them close allies of President Alvaro Uribe, are in jail for allegedly colluding with the paramilitary bosses. Another 30 are under investigation.

Police video showed the sober-looking warlords, some handcuffed and wearing bulletproof vests, arriving from prison in armored cars early Tuesday before they were put on a U.S. government plane to Miami.

They will be tried in Washington, Miami, Tampa, Fla., New York and Houston, a U.S. law enforcement official told the AP, most on charges of cocaine trafficking and money laundering. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official announcement had not yet been made.

At least four were previously wanted for extradition on drug-trafficking charges, including Diego Murillo (also known as "Don Berna") and Rodrigo Tovar, a military officer's son whose nom de guerre was Jorge 40.

Last week, Colombia also extradited a paramilitary boss for the first time. Carlos Mario Jimenez, known as Macaco, was accused of continuing to run his drug gangs from behind bars.

Human rights groups expressed concern Tuesday that the militia bosses will negotiate reduced jail terms in the U.S. and evade responsibility for their most heinous crimes.

"The burden is on the U.S. government to ensure that the victims will have their day in court," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch-Americas.

The paramilitaries killed at least 10,000 people, including dozens of labor activists, chief prosecutor Mario Iguaran has said, as they became de facto rulers of nearly the entire Caribbean coast. Victims' rights groups say at least 30,000 were killed.

The peace pact that enabled the demobilization of some 50 warlords and more than 31,000 fighters required them to compensate their victims.

At least 160,000 people have registered as victims with the chief prosecutor, said Ana Teresa Bernal of Redepaz, an independent group that helps victims of Colombia's conflict.

So far, none have received reparations.

U.S. officials have said they will ensure that extradited Colombians provide information to prosecutors from their homeland - and that civil remedies can also be pursued.

But Claudia Lopez, an independent investigator who helped uncover the paramilitary-political scandal fears criminal cases against politicians will now end: "They've taken away all the witnesses," she said Tuesday.

The militias grew out of self-defense forces formed by wealthy ranchers in the 1980s to counter leftist rebel extortion and kidnapping. They seized much of the Caribbean coast in the late 1990s, killing thousands and stealing millions of acres of land while wresting control of lucrative drug-trafficking routes.

Warlords including Mancuso have implicated politicians and prominent businesses that benefited from their takeover.

"These are the principal paramilitary chiefs, no doubt, those who have valuable information and who acted with politicians, cattlemen and large landowners and clearly represented a danger for their accomplices," said Ivan Cepeda, head of Colombia's main victims' rights group.

Mancuso, for example, told the AP in a prison interview that all banana exporters paid the militias three cents per crate.

U.S.-based Chiquita Brands has acknowledged paying the paramilitaries, for which it was fined US$25 million (euro19 million) by the U.S. Justice Department last year.

Mancuso's United Defense Forces of Colombia, the paramilitary umbrella organization, was declared a terrorist group in 2001 by the United States.

Among politicians recently arrested for allegedly promoting paramilitaries is the president's second cousin and political intimate, former Sen. Mario Uribe.

Walters praised President Uribe for his willingness to "investigate everything, wherever it leads even when there are allegations against a family member ...That's what rule of law means."

--- Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and Tatiana Guerrero in Bogota and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.