US indictment complicates Colombian peace process

Charges against two warlords last week raise question of extradition.

A US indictment last week of two paramilitary warlords on drug trafficking charges could further heat up an already growing debate over Colombia's controversial extradition policy.

On July 22, a New York federal court unsealed charges against Diego Fernando Murillo, better know as "Don Berna," and Vicente Castaño, part of the family who originally founded the right-wing death squads, accusing them of smuggling tons of cocaine into the US.

The US ruling is likely to further complicate the fragile government peace process with the paramilitaries, known by their Spanish acronym AUC. On July 1, paramilitary leaders agreed to concentrate in a government safe zone in Santa Fe de Ralito, Córdoba, in order to negotiate terms for demobilization. In exchange, the government lifted arrest warrants for top warlords, including Mr. Murillo and Mr. Castaño, and thus nullifying extradition requests, at least temporarily.

Although the US indictment does not specifically demand extradition, it is considered a probable next step. As defense analyst Alfredo Rangel put it, "In the end, the decisive point [in negotiations] for some [AUC] leaders is going to be extradition."

President Alvaro Uribe's government holds a record for the number of extraditions - about 140, more than double the 64 extradited in the four-year government of President Andrés Pastrana.

Some lawmakers, the Catholic Church, and the media have not only decried the number of extraditions, but warned that they threaten to torpedo the paramilitary peace process. The biggest problem is how to distinguish between and adequately punish AUC leaders who often have dual identities as warlords bent on vanquishing their nemesis, left-wing rebels known as the FARC, and powerful drug lords interested in enriching themselves.

At a recent Washington conference on the peace process, Colombian Congresswoman Rocio Arias, who plans to introduce legislation to ban extradition for members of armed groups engaged in a peace process, called extradition an "insurmountable obstacle" in negotiations.

In a later interview, Arias insisted the US was mistaken in its assessment of Murillo, Castaño, and company. "The chiefs of the AUC are not narcotraffickers," Arias said boldly, demonstrating how thorny negotiations will be. She claims they simply live in zones with coca, the ingredient in cocaine, an "inheritance" received from the FARC. "Nobody agrees with extradition," Arias added.

Extradition has always been controversial: Those who favor it argue it provides strong leverage over criminals, mostly drug traffickers, otherwise judged by a corrupt judicial system, while those against it contend it violates national sovereignty.

Colombia banned extradition as part of its 1991 constitution after a bloody terror campaign by drug lord Pablo Escobar. Extradition was reinstituted in 1997 under President Ernesto Samper, who was himself accused of receiving drug money for his presidential campaign. Sparking a firestorm of criticism, Samper now says extradition needs to provide more judicial guarantees for the accused.

According to the Interior and Justice Ministry, Uribe's government has shipped 105 Colombians to the US in 2003 and 2004. That includes Nelson Vargas Rueda, who was extradited with much fanfare 14 months ago as the first FARC guerrilla ever to be sent to the US. Vargas was charged with the killing of three American indigenous activists in 1999, but a case of mistaken identity prompted his return recently and harsh criticism of Uribe's zealous extradition policy.

Senator Carlos Gaviria, an Uribe opponent and former constitutional court judge, argues that Uribe's extradition record is an extension of the president's national security policy, in which he has been waging war against the FARC while trying to negotiate with the paramilitaries, both of whom are heavily involved in drug trafficking.

Apparently, one way Uribe is attempting to negotiate with the AUC leaders, five of whom are now wanted by the US, is through the threat of extradition. Despite criticism, Uribe has stuck to the promise that AUC leaders accused of drug trafficking will be extradited to the US.

This raises the question of whether more attention and harsher sentences should be doled out to drug traffickers rather than paramilitary leaders who have committed massacres.

As Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt put it after being asked by El Tiempo newspaper whether it wasn't a serious thing to be negotiating with know narcotraffickers, "Why is [narcotrafficking] more serious than having committed a massacre?"

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