Colombia extradites paramilitary leaders to US: victims angry

Victims of Colombia's 44-year civil war say they now have less hope of finding out the truth about how their family members disappeared.

Every Wednesday for nearly a decade, dozens of men and women gather at a public plaza in Colombia's second-largest city, Medellín, to demand to know the whereabouts of their loved ones who have disappeared in Colombia's 44-year civil war.

But this Wednesday, the chance of learning the truth seemed farther away than ever. Fourteen top imprisoned warlords who had long been expected to shed light on how they committed brutal crimes were extradited to the United States Tuesday to face charges of drug trafficking, not murder.

"What was extradited was the truth," says Teresita Gaviria, leader of the group Mothers of La Candelaria that represents the families of more tan 530 victims, including three of her own relatives.

Colombia's surprise extradition of 14 right-wing paramilitary leaders was a bold move to check the expansion of the criminal networks they continued to run from prison, analysts say. But sending them to stand trial in US courts has left the victims of the paramilitary chiefs' more gruesome crimes without hope of truth and reparations.

Colombia's demobilization process

The leaders of right-wing paramilitary groups – anti-insurgent armies that terrorized the countryside for more than a decade and killed anyone suspected of sympathizing with leftist rebels – had demobilized, along with more than 30,000 fighters, as part of a negotiated deal with the government of President Álvaro Uribe.

But in a televised speech Tuesday Mr. Uribe said the paramilitary leaders had violated the conditions of their participation in the country's Justice and Peace process by running their criminal networks from prison and would be sent to the US.

The militia bosses face sentences of about 30 years in the US versus the eight years maximum they would have served under the Justice and Peace law. That is "good news," according to José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

"The bad news is they may no longer have any reason to collaborate with Colombian prosecutors investigating their atrocities against civilians and their collaboration with high-ranking government officials," he says.

Militiamen's ties to politicians

Since 2006, dozens of top and midlevel paramilitary leaders have revealed details of massacres they ordered and the location of thousands of shallow, unmarked graves scattered across the country where their victims were buried. They have also revealed information about their connections to powerful businesses and politicians.

Three weeks ago, Colombian prosecutors had Uribe's cousin and close political ally, Mario Uribe, arrested for allegedly conspiring with paramilitaries. He is one of some 60 congressmen to come under investigation for alleged links to paramilitaries, as part of what is known as the "parapolitics" scandal.

For Uribe, whose ruling coalition has been the hardest hit by the parapolitics scandal, the extraditions help him send a message that he has no hidden agenda with the paramilitaries.

Trade-deal motivations?

It also won't hurt as Colombia and the Bush administration continue to try to make a case for a free-trade agreement between the two countries that has been stalled by the Democratic leadership in part over human rights concerns.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the Bush administration expects that the extraditions "would persuade the Democratic leaders in Congress" to "see this as yet another sign."

But political analyst Rafael Pardo says it also proves that one of signature policies of the Uribe government – the demobilization – was unsuccessful. "The process under the Justice and Peace law was a failure," he notes.

The effects that the extradition of the top bosses will have on the other 30,000 or so demobilized paramilitary fighters who took their orders from these men is as yet unclear.

It will either confirm to certain detractors that they should never have laid down their weapons in the first place, or it will dissuade them from rearming, lest they, too, end up in a US jail cell.

As part of a special agreement between the two nations for the extradition, the US has agreed to allow access by Colombian prosecutors to the extradited warlords to investigate atrocious crimes. They also agreed that any assets seized by the United States or fines imposed on the paramilitary bosses will be transferred to Colombia to be awarded to the more than 100,000 victims that have come forth.

But Ms. Gaviria says that if the warlords had been dragging their feet on telling the whole truth about their crimes and their assets here, there is only a slim chance they will offer up the information from the US, where the courts are concerned only with drug trafficking charges. "If they toyed with us here – always promising that next week they would give details – imagine now!" she says. "There, they have no incentive to give us the information."

Gaviria had been waiting for one of the paramilitary leaders to confess to the murder of her father and to reveal the whereabouts of three other relatives who disappeared. "If they ever planned to confess, that is," she says.

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