Pubdate: Wed, 14 May 2008
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Page: A10
Copyright: 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Authors: David Luhnow and Jose De Cordoba


Move Could Help Free-Trade Deal Advance in Congress

Colombia extradited 14 top paramilitary warlords to face 
drug-trafficking charges in the U.S., a dramatic move that could help 
the country secure a free-trade deal with Washington but endangers 
Colombia's fragile peace process.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said the 14 bosses of the 
paramilitary, a group believed responsible for shipping tons of 
cocaine to the U.S. as well as having participated in or ordered 
thousands of murders during Colombia's long-running civil war, 
violated the terms of their 2005 peace deal by continuing to run 
criminal groups and traffic drugs from prison. "We have greatly 
reduced the incidence of violence in Colombia. Therefore, we cannot 
afford to react weakly to the recidivists who return to their murders 
and their other crimes," Mr. Uribe said in a nationally televised 
address. On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California 
Democrat, doesn't appear ready to free the trade deal for a vote. But 
allies of the Andean nation seized on the extraditions Tuesday as 
fresh evidence of the need for action on the deal, which would 
tighten economic ties between the U.S. and Colombia.

Mr. Uribe, the son of a rancher murdered by guerrillas, came to power 
in 2002 and has dragged the country back from the brink of chaos by 
striking hard at the country's communist insurgency while making a 
peace deal with right-wing paramilitaries.

As part of the deal, paramilitary leaders got reduced prison 
sentences and an assurance not to be extradited in exchange for 
promises to tell the truth about their crimes, compensate victims and 
stop any illegal activity. Shortly after midnight, Colombian police 
roused the militia leaders from their jail cells, placed them in 
chains and transferred them in separate groups to a military base 
near the capital, where agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement 
Administration received the men and put them in a row of waiting 
airplanes. The planes took off at dawn, flying to Miami, Washington, 
Houston and New York -- cities where the drug lords have indictments 
against them from the U.S. government.

One notorious boss, Rodrigo Tovar, known in Colombia as "Jorge 40," 
shouted obscenities as he was dragged to a plane, accusing Mr. Uribe 
of betraying him, according to Colombian media reports.

The mass extradition, unprecedented in the war on drugs, should 
cement Colombia's position as the Bush administration's top ally in 
Latin America. Experts say the extradition likely won't slow the pace 
of cocaine that Colombia sends to the U.S. -- with a street value 
estimated at $12 billion a year -- because other men will take over 
drug gangs. But it should ensure that this particular group of men 
gets punished rather than being able to buy influence and a more 
comfortable life in Colombian jails. "It's a day of historic action," 
U.S. drug czar John Walters said in an interview. Mr. Walters added 
that none of the extradited men would be subject to plea deals that 
could reduce their sentences -- making it likely they will get long 
prison terms.

The extradition comes at a time when Colombia is trying to persuade 
the U.S. Congress to pass a bilateral free-trade deal. Democrats have 
put the deal on ice amid concerns about job losses in the U.S. as 
well as accusations that Colombia hasn't done enough to halt 
right-wing paramilitary violence against labor unions. The 
extraditions will bolster Colombia's argument that it is becoming a 
more tolerant, law-abiding society.

The Bush administration was quick to hail the move and urged 
Democrats to respond by getting the pact unstuck. "We can certainly 
hope that this would persuade Congress, the Democratic leaders in 
Congress, specifically Speaker Pelosi, that she would see this as yet 
another sign [of Colombia's merit]," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), in a statement urged "the 
Speaker to demonstrate that she understands the stakes, is aware of 
the consequences, and recognizes the key strategic component at the 
core of this debate." The move also helps Mr. Uribe deflect attention 
from a growing scandal in Colombia over links between much of the 
political establishment and the paramilitary groups.

Scores of lawmakers, including many of Mr. Uribe's supporters, have 
been jailed over ties to the illegal militias. An estimated one-fifth 
of Colombia's congress is either in jail or has resigned in the 
"para-politics" scandal. Analysts said that Mr. Uribe's move to 
extradite the very people that he supposedly was close to would send 
a strong signal that he was no longer -- if ever -- in the 
paramilitaries' corner.

"It's a political masterstroke," said Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert 
at the University of Miami. "This should put to rest rumors that he 
was beholden to the paramilitaries who had been allowed to penetrate 
the presidential palace." Critics of Mr. Uribe's in Colombia 
suggested that he sent the paramilitaries to the U.S. to ensure they 
wouldn't taint his government further by implicating him or other top 
officials. One of the extradited warlords, Salvatore Mancuso, last 
year accused several top officials of helping the paramilitary movement.

Human-rights groups welcomed the move but also questioned whether 
having the warlords in the U.S. would diminish the likelihood that 
the truth about their crimes would ever be known to the victims' 
families. "On the one hand, for the first time these guys are going 
to be facing real prosecution and real punishment," said Jose Miguel 
Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch and a critic of 
Colombia's record on rights. "But the risk here is that, once again, 
the victims of these massive atrocities will be the big losers."

During the past decade, Colombia has sent more than 600 people 
involved in the drug trade to the U.S. for trial. But most of those 
sent were seen as low-level drug dealers and those linked with the 
leftist FARC guerrillas.

That began to change last week, when Colombia extradited its first 
paramilitary leader, Carlos Jimenez, a 42-year-old popularly known in 
Colombia as "El Macaco," a type of monkey. That move set the stage 
for Tuesday's mass extradition.

The men extradited included Diego Murillo, known as "Don Berna." Mr. 
Murillo started his career as a driver and alleged assassin for the 
late Pablo Escobar, Colombia's most famous capo, who was killed in 
1993. Don Berna stepped into Mr. Escobar's shoes and became one of 
Colombia's most important drug lords.

Another is Mr. Mancuso, the son of prosperous cattle ranchers, who 
studied engineering in Colombia. As part of the peace process, Mr. 
Mancuso nonchalantly confessed last year to participating in or 
ordering the killings of hundreds of Colombians. In a radio 
interview, a Colombian journalist angrily asked Mr. Mancuso about 
killing fields where paramilitaries systematically flayed and 
dismembered victims. Mr. Mancuso replied: "I won't deny it, but you 
have to put it into context." Reviled by some and revered by others 
in Colombia, the paramilitary leaders for a while appeared as if they 
were going to live well despite their crimes. At the start of the 
peace process, Mr. Mancuso addressed Colombia's congress and was 
applauded by many lawmakers.

The paramilitaries took part in the peace process in order to avoid 
extradition. From the time of Mr. Escobar, Colombia's drug lords 
repeated the refrain: "Better dead in Colombia than in a U.S. jail." 
Mr. Uribe's move is sure to anger the paramilitaries and some of 
their supporters. Some 47,000 people demobilized under the peace 
deal, and 3,300 or so are actively in the peace process, according to 
Mr. Uribe. Some paramilitaries have given up on the process and 
returned to drug running. Others may question whether they should 
trust the government's promises. "They will get a lot of backfire 
from paras who felt they had a deal in place and now that deal has 
been disrupted," said Mr. Bagley, the expert at the University of Miami. 
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