Feb 17

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It’s been almost two years since the Colombian government extradited most of the old AUC paramilitary leadership to the United States to face drug charges. While it is positive to see these once-powerful warlords behind bars, they are here to be tried for narcotrafficking only — not for the thousands of murders and other human rights crimes for which they are responsible.

The extraditions have brought nearly two years of additional frustration for victims trying to recover stolen property or learn what happened to their loved ones; for prosecutors trying to dismantle the paramilitaries’ criminal networks; and for investigators trying to determine who in Colombia’s politics and armed forces gave the murderous militias support, funding and arms.

The Berkeley Law School’s International Human Rights Law Clinic released a report yesterday that is by far the best source of information and analysis on what has happened since the extraditions began. “Truth behind Bars: Colombian Paramilitary Leaders in U.S. Custody” (PDF) lays out the apparently inadvertent damage that the extraditions have done to the cause of truth and justice in Colombia. It also, however, recommends workable steps that the U.S. and Colombian governments might take to set things right.

Here are just a few excerpts from the report. Download the full 4.1MB PDF file here.

Most extradited paramilitaries have dropped out of the “Justice and Peace” process, and thus do not have to speak to Colombian authorities at all.

Only five of the thirty Defendants have continued their voluntary statements at the Justice and Peace hearings from the United States. Defendant Salvatore Mancuso participated in four version libre confession sessions from the United States, more than the other extradited leaders. During these sessions, he detailed several massacres and trade unionist murders. However, on September 30, 2009, Mancuso announced his decision to withdraw from the process. His announcement came three days after fellow extradited AUC leader Diego Murillo Bejarano made a similar announcement. In letters to Colombian authorities, both Defendants cited unexplained delays, the inability to confer with subordinates, and threats to family members in Colombia as the reasons for their decisions. Colombian authorities have confirmed the difficulties in securing the Defendants’ continued participation. Of thirty-nine hearing requests made by Colombian authorities during a five- month period, only ten were satisfied.

Victims are cut out almost completely. U.S. prosecutors have chosen not to apply the Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA).

To preserve victim involvement in the Justice and Peace process, Colombian and U.S. authorities initially planned for Defendants to testify via video conference for viewing by accredited victims in Colombia. In practice, however, Colombian authorities have cancelled several transmissions because of lack of funds. Similarly, U.S. custody of Defendants has frustrated victims’ ability to question perpetrators directly, as stipulated by the Justice and Peace Law. …

Colombian victims have been unable to pursue economic redress against Defendants through the U.S. criminal proceedings. In theory, victims are eligible to collect compensation from Defendants and to inform the terms of a plea bargain and eventual sentence under the U.S. Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA). However, U.S. prosecutors have opposed the efforts of Colombian victims to intervene and have refused to acknowledge them as victims under the statute. This approach prevents victims from even learning of the status of the prosecutions of Defendants.

The extraditions have effectively blocked other judicial investigations aiming to dismantle paramilitarism and punish collaborators, including the “para-politics” investigations. U.S. officials aren’t even responding to information requests coming from Colombian prosecutors and even Supreme Court justices. Those who helped the paramilitaries now have little reason to fear that the extradited leaders might reveal their identities.

Colombian investigations outside the Justice and Peace process have been stymied by the extradition of Defendants. At the direction of the United States, Colombia has forwarded all requests for judicial cooperation to the justice attaché at the U.S. Embassy. However, Colombian judges
and prosecutors report that U.S. officials have not been sufficiently responsive. Transmission of information has been delayed and cancellations of exchanges are frequent. In a May 21, 2009 letter to a Colombian non-governmental organization, the Colombian Human Rights Unit identified fifty-four unanswered requests for judicial assistance. … Colombia’s Supreme Court has encountered similar difficulties. For instance, since late 2008, the Supreme Court has made multiple requests to take statements from Defendants, including AUC leaders Carlos Jiménez Naranjo, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, and Diego Murillo Bejarano. However, as of October 28, 2009, U.S. authorities had not responded.

The report has three recommendations for the U.S. government.

  • Create an effective and efficient procedure for judicial cooperation. The United States should review current policy to identify the cause of delays in responding to requests for cooperation. New procedures should ensure that U.S. authorities share information with and respond to requests by Colombian authorities in a timely manner to minimize any impact of the extraditions on open investigations in Colombia.
  • Incentivize extradited paramilitary leaders to disclose details about all their crimes and the identities of their accomplices in the military, government and national and foreign businesses. The United States should actively encourage extradited leaders to testify about their crimes and allies by conditioning sentence reductions or other benefits achieved through plea-bargaining on effective cooperation. Possible benefits of cooperation should include provision of visas to family members of Defendants under threat in Colombia. … The U.S. Department of Justice should reverse its current policy of taking “no position” on whether Defendants should cooperate with Colombian authorities.
  • Initiate investigations for torture committed by extradited paramilitary leaders. [P]ursuant to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. has ratified, the State Party in whose territory an alleged torturer is found has a duty to either extradite that individual, or to “submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.” This duty is also supported by U.S. domestic anti-torture legislation. … The United States should hold extradited leaders accountable for all their crimes under federal law, including torture, and promote justice for Colombian victims.
Aug 06

Below is a translation of Patricia Lara’s column in today’s El Espectador about the probable extradition of former paramilitary leader Hebert Veloza García, alias “HH.”

Veloza is one of the bloodiest of paramilitary leaders. He played a command role in the horrific paramilitary takeover of the Urabá region in northwestern Colombia during the second half of the 1990s, a campaign that involved near-daily massacres and enjoyed the security forces’ blatant support. Then, after the ELN kidnapped wealthy worshipers at an upscale Cali church in 1999, HH worked with local businesspeople and authorities to form the Calima Bloc, which went on to terrorize much of Valle del Cauca and Cauca departments, carrying out notorious massacres like the Alto Naya killings in 2001.

Veloza demobilized along with the “Bananero Bloc” of the AUC in November 2004. He then thought better of it and became a fugitive. The Colombian authorities captured him in April 2007. Upon his arrest, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said that Veloza was disqualified from participating in the “Justice and Peace” process, which would have allowed him a lighter jail sentence in exchange for full confession of his crimes.

However, Veloza later managed to enter the Justice and Peace process, where he quickly became a star witness, one of the most forthcoming of all the former paramilitary leaders. He has confessed to over 3,000 murders, identified the whereabouts of many mass graves, and talked openly about the collaboration he received from banana companies like Chiquita Brands and from the Colombian military – including Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who commanded the army’s Urabá-based 17th Brigade in 1995-1997, while Álvaro Uribe was the governor of the surrounding department of Antioquia. Last month Veloza turned in a USB memory drive with thousands of files belonging to deceased AUC leader Carlos Castaño.

Veloza has declared his intention to “say everything. How the security forces coordinated the movement of troops and helped us move weapons. We paid them to give information and cooperate.” In lengthy interviews given over the past week (El Espectador, Semana video), he has reiterated his desire “to tell the truth about why the victims’ relatives died, where the graves are, and who participated” before his extradition – recently approved by Colombia’s Supreme Court – goes forward.

Will “HH” be extradited – and thus silenced, at least for a while – before he gets a chance to tell the Colombian authorities about the members of Colombia’s political, business and military elite who aided and abetted his campaign of murder?

Here is Patricia Lara’s column.

Do it for your honor, Mr. President
By Patricia Lara Salive

A barbarity is going to be committed: to extradite to the United States, for trafficking a scant five kilos of cocaine, someone who has confessed to murdering 3,000 people and who wants to tell secrets about the complicity of military officers, politicians and businessmen with the Self-Defense Groups.

In effect, Hebert Veloza García, alias HH, the paramilitary who delivered to the authorities the USB memory from Carlos Castaño’s computer (by the way, why are its contents not discussed?) and who is now in the extraditables’ cell block, relates in an impressive interview in Sunday’s El Espectador some deeds that it would be unheard of not to finish investigating and punishing. He says, for example:

About Castaño’s USB: “I turned over the USB (…) and they put me in isolation. If I turn over more information they will reopen Gorgona [a small Pacific island that Colombia once used as an Alcatraz-style prison] to stick me there. It is very hard to tell the truth (…). There are 9,000 files [on the USB] in which everything is spoken of and many important people appear.”

About politicians: “Today we are like the ugly girlfriend: at night they caress us and during the day they don’t even look at us (…). Power is very good and politicians will do anything to have it.”

About the murder of Jaime Garzón [a popular TV comedian killed in 1999]: “The information we had was that he had ties to the ELN and that he was acting as an intermediary between kidnap victims’ relatives and the guerrillas. And it was people from the high command of the Army who gave us this information.”

About Gen. Rito Alejo del Río [commander of the Urabá-based 17th Brigade from 1995-1997, widely accused, but never convicted, of aiding and abetting paramilitaries]: “I don’t know why they haven’t tied him to any criminal investigation. I’ll just give you one piece of information: when I was the commander in Urabá and he was the commander of the 17th Brigade, I kidnapped two people who had been detained by the Army, held at the Brigade headquarters. I got them out of the brig (…) with complicity. I took them out in a car from the brigade itself, in a covered red Trooper (…). They were from the FARC’s 5th Front and they had kidnapped a woman in Buenaventura. I entered the Brigade, took the people out, we took them to Buenaventura and disappeared them. (…) Gen. Rito Alejo went to see Carlos Castaño many times and they met at ranches near the border of Córdoba and Urabá [Antioquia]. The security forces were very tied down when it came to fighting the guerrillas, and we used the same methods the subversives did. Our results benefited the Army. There is more (…) I patrolled with Col. Byron Carvajal [recently convicted for planning the massacre of an elite police counter-drug Unit in Jamundí, Valle, in 2006] in 1995 and we fought the guerrillas (…). I went anywhere I wanted, like Pedro in his own house. I entered brigades’ headquarters, police barracks, I did what I wanted.”

About the victims’ bodies: “In Urabá, when we began, all the bodies were left where the people were killed. But the security forces protested and asked us to keep working, but to disappear the cadavers. That is why mass graves were implemented… (The problem was that) the mortality rates increased rapidly and this was not helpful (…). I traveled freely in a white Hilux [pickup truck], which they called ‘road to heaven,’ and we killed people every day, in all the municipalities of Urabá. The only one who denounced this was Gloria Cuartas [at the time, the outspoken mayor of Apartadó, one of Urabá's main towns].”

About the victims: “The biggest victims will be the victims who are going to be left without the truth (…). It is necessary to tell the truth about this war in which only the rich benefited, and the poor lost.”

President Uribe: you, who gave such heartfelt praise to General Rito Alejo, cannot allow Veloza to go now without having finished telling his truth. Accept his request to delay his extradition. Do it for the good of the fatherland. But do it as well for your own honor, since you were the governor of Antioquia during this period.