Colombia extradites paramilitary leader to US over rights groups protests

Hebert Veloza Garcia's extradition will stymie efforts to find justice for his victims, say Colombian human rights groups.

National Police/Handout/Reuters
Extradited: Former paramilitary chief Herbert Veloza Garcia, also known as "HH," is escorted by police to the airport in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday. Veloza was extradited to the US on drug trafficking charges.

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Colombia has extradited Hebert Veloza Garcia, one of its "most feared" former paramilitary leaders, to the United States on drug-trafficking charges, despite requests from Colombian human rights groups that Mr. Veloza's extradition be delayed until he had more completely detailed the crimes committed under his command.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Veloza was flown to New York in US Drug Enforcement Administration custody Thursday, and will face trial on drug charges in the US. Veloza, also known as "HH," led paramilitary fighters in northern Colombia who killed hundreds of leftist guerilla sympathizers and displaced thousands more before being captured in 2007, but human rights groups believe that he has yet to reveal all the crimes in which he was involved.

Half a dozen Colombian human rights groups wrote a letter last month to U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. asking that he delay the transfer of Veloza until after judicial proceedings here that focus on alleged paramilitary atrocities....
Seeking to avoid extradition, he became a highly cooperative witness before special tribunals set up to investigate paramilitary crimes. Paramilitary units were formed in the 1980s by cattlemen and farmers to defend against leftist guerrillas. However, they later branched out into drug trafficking and organized crime.
During dozens of appearances at the tribunals, Veloza acknowledged ordering massacres, personally killing more than 100 people, and participating in thousands of other crimes, including extortion and forced displacement of impoverished farmers.

The Associated Press reports that the US has promised to give Colombian prosecutors access to Veloza, but the human rights groups, which had already successfully delayed his extradition by six months, believe that Veloza's departure will leave many of his crimes unresolved.

"There was no reason for an extradition with such urgency," said Ivan Cepeda, spokesman for the National Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State. "We didn't ask that he not be extradited, just that it be delayed until he could confess to everything."
Prosecutor Nubia Chavez said Veloza has acknowledged 480 murders by fighters under his command, including multiple massacres and the 2004 killing of the Castano brother Carlos, who had been chief of the umbrella United Self-Defense forces of Colombia, or AUC.
"I think he was able to confess to about 50 percent of his crimes," Chavez told The Associated Press.

Along the same lines, Reuters cited CRIC, a Colombian indigenous peoples' group, which said in a statement that "When paramilitaries are extradited, the country and especially the families' victims lose out, they lose the truth and they lose justice."

The BBC writes that "victims' groups believe he was extradited because he knew too much about senior figures who were involved with the paramilitaries." The BBC notes that one government official that Veloza accused of being involved, Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio, has close ties to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. General del Rio is currently being held in Colombia on murder charges.

Veloza is just one of some 17 Colombian paramilitary leaders extradited to the US in the past year; the Associated Press writes that the 16th, reputed cocaine kingpin Miguel Angel Mejia, was flown to the US on Tuesday. But The Miami Herald reports that a recent ruling by the Colombian Supreme Court may stem the flow. The Supreme Court last month barred the extradition of several leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who were involved in the kidnapping of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractors.

The Supreme Court blocked the extraditions, ruling that the United States had no jurisdiction over Colombians in some crimes committed in Colombia, including "taking hostages." However, the court authorized the extradition of one of the men because he also was charged with drug trafficking....
The rulings were a major setback because the mere threat of extradition can help dismantle a criminal organization.
"The risk I see with these decisions in that they endanger extradition, which has been vital to the fight against drug trafficking," former Vice Minister of Justice Rafael Nietosaid in a telephone interview. "This is restrictive interpretation [of the extradition law] that I think favors delinquents."

But an article in Time magazine notes that extradition has its critics, who say that the procedure is too expensive and has been ineffective at stopping drugs being smuggled into the US.

"Every day we extradite more people, but the problem continues," says Maria Victoria Llorente, director of the Bogotá think tank Ideas for Peace. (While the U.S. says Colombia's cocaine production has decreased from 680 tons in 2002 to 535 tons in 2007, the United Nations says it has increased from 580 tons to 630 in the same period.)
Besides the cost to U.S. taxpayers of prosecuting all those extraditados – which often involves transportation and housing for witnesses, hiring bilingual lawyers and translating paperwork – tens of thousands of dollars are also spent annually to incarcerate each foreign detainee. What's more, for every Don Diego [drug lord Diego Montoya, who was extradited to the US in December], there are dozens who rarely merit the trouble of extradition. "There is no system to filter the important from the unimportant," says Joaquin Perez, a Miami-based lawyer who defends accused Colombian traffickers. Many of those caught in the net are small-fry – like the smuggler's driver, the document forger or the guy who prepared the box lunches for the crews of the go-fast boats.

Time adds that "many law-enforcement experts vigorously defend extradition" as a means to prevent drug lords from manipulating the Colombian justice system. Time notes that just last year a high-ranking government prosecutor was arrested for collaborating with a drug baron.

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