Yesterday, U.S. Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales was in BogotÃ¡ praising the Uribe government to the skies, calling Colombia a â€œbeacon to the world.â€
Gonzales emphasized the Colombian governmentâ€™s increased willingness to extradite drug suspects to the United States.
Extradition is a critical tool for both our countries in the battle to ensure that criminals are brought to justice. The extradition partnership the United States has with Colombia is the best we have in the world. This important relationship enables both countries to deal effectively and forcefully with serious criminal organizations and individuals.
Well, not all serious criminal organizations and individuals.
At the same time Gonzales was making his remarks, the main front of the AUCâ€™s Pacific Bloc was demobilizing, in a ceremony presided over by a longtime narcotrafficker who, though indicted by a U.S. court, is unlikely ever to face U.S. justice.
The frontâ€™s 150 members turned in 144 weapons Tuesday in the department of ChocÃ³. They did so in the presence of their â€œpolitical chief,â€ Francisco Javier Zuluaga Lindo, known as â€œGordo Lindoâ€ (which translates as â€œfat pretty manâ€).
Zuluaga himself will formally demobilize on Saturday. When he does, it will be a major victory for all Colombian narcotraffickers who joined the AUC in the hope of avoiding extradition to the United States.
The 35-year-old Zuluaga does not have a long history in the AUC, though he has been in the drug-trafficking business since the days of the MedellÃn cartel fifteen or so years ago. He was part of the organization of MedellÃn cartel figures Fabio and Jorge Ochoa. Later, after the MedellÃn and Cali cartels disappeared, he worked with Alejandro â€œJuvenalâ€ Bernal Madrigal, one of the largest drug-traffickers of the late 1990s. Zuluaga narrowly escaped capture in 1999, when â€œJuvenalâ€ was arrested in â€œOperation Millennium,â€ a major DEA-Colombian Police sting operation. Since then, he has been a fugitive, maintaining ties to the countryâ€™s largest drug organization, the Northern Valle cartel. In 1999, a court in Fort Lauderdale indicted him for narcotrafficking.
None of this stopped him from winning a position in the AUC. About three years ago, just as the Uribe government was beginning its negotiations with the paramilitaries, AUC leader Diego Fernando Murillo (â€œDon Berna,â€ another recently arrived paramilitary with a long history in the drug underworld) made him the political chief of the Pacific Bloc, which operates in the departments of ChocÃ³ and Valle del Cauca (from just south of Panama to just south of Cali).
Colombian Senator Jimmy Chamorro denounced this week that â€œGordo Lindoâ€ paid $5 million for his paramilitary status. He â€œopened his checkbook and bought a franchise to convert himself from a narcotrafficker into a paramilitary chief. This cannot be allowed.â€
Zuluagaâ€™s tenuous status in the AUC was evidenced by this bizarre exchange with Pacific Bloc commander â€œJohnatan Guevaraâ€ on Tuesday on Colombiaâ€™s â€œLa Wâ€ radio network, reported by El Tiempo.
The man who answered the call not only denied having participated in the drug business but also denied that â€œGordo Lindoâ€ is the maximum leader of the â€œPacificâ€: â€œSince the process began, many people who are commanders have come to Ralito [the zone where negotiations have taken place]. â€¦ We didnâ€™t even know their names, and weâ€™ve only seen them for the first time now.â€
He added that â€œZuluaga has not been in this zone. We have nothing to do with him. No narcotrafficking has happened here,â€ said the man, with a ChocÃ³ accent.
Minutes later, one of the reporters [from â€œLa Wâ€] received a call. It was â€œComandante Johnatan,â€ asking to rectify the comments that had been transmitted over â€œLa Wâ€ about the Pacific Bloc and its relationship with â€œGordo Lindo.â€
â€¦ â€œI think one of the muchachos who picked up my phone thought someone was playing a practical joke. He never thought that it would be the press, so he started to say stupid things,â€ assured â€œJohnatan Guevara,â€ military chief of the Pacific Bloc.
The new incident reinforced doubts about the status of Francisco Javier Zuluaga, alias â€œGordo Lindo,â€ as a true paramilitary chief, instead of a narco-trafficker who â€œparachutedâ€ into the ranks of the AUC.
â€¦ Another interview was arranged, which was to take place on the same cellphone. But the paramilitary chief never answered again.
As a demobilizing paramilitary, â€œGordo Lindoâ€ will benefit from the very lenient so-called â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law that the Colombian Congress narrowly passed, at the Uribe governmentâ€™s urging, in June. He will be required to confess to past crimes, including narcotrafficking, which he will argue was fundraising for the paramilitary cause. For his misdeeds he will be sentenced to 5 to 8 years â€“ really 3 Â½ to 6 Â½ years, subtracting time spent negotiating â€“ in a â€œprisonâ€ that might actually be house arrest at a rural estate.
Having paid this light penalty, â€œGordo Lindoâ€ may not be extradited, as under Colombian law this would be â€œdouble jeopardyâ€ â€“ being punished twice for the same crime. The â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law also considers paramilitarism to be a â€œpolitical crime,â€ which the Colombian Constitution states is not an extraditable offense; if Zuluagaâ€™s lawyers can argue that his narcotrafficking was â€œconnectedâ€ to the political crime of paramilitarism, he may not be extradited for his drug-dealing.
According to Senator Chamorro, with the cases of â€œGordo Lindoâ€ and other narcos-turned-paramilitary-leaders, â€œthe government has made extradition into a huge joke.â€
Yesterday, Colombian reporters did ask Attorney-General Gonzales whether the cases of â€œGordo Lindoâ€ and other paramilitary traffickers donâ€™t call into question the U.S.-Colombian â€œextradition partnershipâ€ he had praised so highly in his comments. He responded vaguely: â€œOur general objective is to bring to justice any person who commits crimes against the American people, or who carries out criminal activities against U.S. interests.â€
What is happening right now with â€œGordo Lindoâ€ and other demobilizing AUC leaders violates that â€œgeneral objectiveâ€ in both letter and spirit. Yet the U.S. Attorney-General, our maximum law-enforcement official, did not condemn it when given an opportunity to do so.
Why, then, did he bother to visit BogotÃ¡?