In 2001, Newsweek reporter Joe Contreras spent some time in the Caribbean port of Barranquilla, Colombiaâ€™s fourth-largest city. There, he reported on HernÃ¡n Giraldo, the drug-trafficking paramilitary leader who was perhaps the most powerful figure in the city, the nearby port of Santa Marta, and in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region to their south.
In the foothills of the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas in northeastern Colombia, the Kogi Indians whisper his name in fear. Along the docks of the Caribbean port city of Santa Marta, gangsters speak with awe of his 400-man private army. But everyone knows that when it comes to Hernan Giraldo Serna, it’s usually best not to know too much. The gangsters quietly recall, for instance, that in 1999 Giraldo ordered the brutal murders of four construction workers, whose bodies were then cut to bits with a chain saw. Their offense? They had built a special basement to store his multimillion-dollar cache of cocaine, and they knew where it was.
Colombian intelligence sources at the time told Contreras that â€œGiraldo alone is head of a burgeoning drug syndicate that accounts for $1.2 billion in annual shipments to the United States and Europe. That puts him among the country’s top five cocaine traffickers.â€
In 2000, Contreras reported, Giraldo even took out a contract on the lives of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents.
It was on the evening of Feb. 18, 2000, that the DEA office in Barranquilla heard that a ruthless right-wing paramilitary chieftain named Hernan Giraldo had put out a $500,000 contract on the U.S. special agents assigned to investigate the top drug lords of northern Colombia.
On October 9, 2001, Semana magazine reports, Giraldo ordered the murder of three Colombian anti-narcotics police agents who were working closely with the DEA. The crime even drove a wedge between Giraldo and the rest of the AUC, at the time led by Carlos CastaÃ±o, who sent hundreds of men to Giraldoâ€™s zone to pressure him to turn over the trigger-pullers. The resulting violence claimed dozens of lives, but Giraldo and the AUC soon reconciled. He has since been accused of ordering the February 2004 murder of Marta Lucía Hernández, the ranger in charge of Tayrona National Park, from whose shores Giraldo is believed to control the dozens of go-fast boats taking cocaine northward.
And now, Hernán Giraldo is getting away with it.
Hernán Giraldo turns in his weapon.
Six days ago, Giraldo and 1,166 men from his â€œTayrona Resistance Blocâ€ handed in 366 weapons, making them one of the latest groups to do so as the AUC scrambles to meet a February 15 deadline for its full â€œdemobilization.â€ As a beneficiary of the â€œJustice and Peace Lawâ€ that Colombiaâ€™s Congress passed last year to govern such demobilizations, Giraldo can look forward to spending up to 6 Â½ years in a special prison, after which he will be a free man.
Giraldo must also declare all of his illegally obtained assets so that the government may return them to their owners or sell them for reparations to victims. Citing Colombian intelligence sources, Newsweek reported in 2001 that Giraldo â€œowns dozens of homes and farms, a fish-exporting business and a posh hotel.â€ Will these properties, whether stolen or purchased with drug money, end up being returned to the Colombian government?
And what does the U.S. government make of HernÃ¡n Giraldoâ€™s happy ending? Is it galling to see its closest ally in Latin America give a slap on the wrist to someone who conspired to kill DEA agents? How are they dealing with the slim possibility that Giraldoâ€™s extradition order will be honored? Will this â€“ along with the impunity being granted to other notorious drug traffickers â€“ affect relations with Ãlvaro Uribe? If hard-line U.S. drug warriors remain silent about this, doesnâ€™t this shred their credibility? Where is the official outrage from Washington?