Pubdate: Wed, 14 May 2008
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: 6, Section A
Copyright: 2008 The New York Times Company
Author: Simon Romero


Colombia extradited 14 jailed paramilitary
leaders to the United States on Tuesday, in an effort by President
Alvaro Uribe to take a hard line against the warlords and defuse a
scandal that has tied them to senior lawmakers in the Colombian
Congress and members of his own family.

The extraditions of so many paramilitary leaders at once was
unprecedented in Colombia's long history of trying to dismantle the
hydra-headed syndicates that export cocaine to the United States. They
come at a delicate moment for Colombia's government, which is trying
to win approval of a trade agreement with the United States.

Senior Democrats in Congress have opposed the trade deal, saying that
Mr. Uribe has not made enough progress in curbing human rights abuses
and prosecuting those responsible.

The extraditions seemed to indicate a new push by Mr. Uribe's
government to prevent the rearming of the paramilitary armies after
years in which violence in Colombia's internal war has waned.

The extraditions were carried out by surprise in the early hours of
Tuesday with dozens of elite police officers gathering the men from
three high-security prisons in Colombia. Interior Minister Carlos
Holguin said the men were put aboard a plane in Bogota bound for the
United States, where they will face drug-trafficking charges.

"Most of the top bosses are there," Mr. Holguin said, speaking on
Colombian radio. "In some cases they were still committing crimes and
reorganizing criminal structures."

The extraditions are likely to add fodder not only to the fierce
debate around the trade agreement, but also to the debate in Colombia
about the best way to prosecute those accused of committing some of
the worst atrocities in Colombia's long war.

Human rights groups say the extraditions will put the warlords outside
the reach of Colombia's judicial system. While the men may now face
lengthy sentences in the United States for drug-trafficking offenses,
their crimes related to the war in Colombia may go unpunished, they

"These men are not going to be held accountable for the human rights
violations they committed," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas
director for Human Rights Watch. "Victims in Colombia will not be able
to confront their tormentors and receive the reparations they deserve."

Still, some of the men extradited to the United States could spend
more time in prison in the United States on drug trafficking charges
than they would in Colombia for their actions during the war. It was
also clear that some warlords had effectively controlled their armies
from prison, thwarting efforts to prevent a paramilitary resurgence.

Reports of an increase in extrajudicial slayings this year, in
particular a rise in killings of union members, have plagued Mr.
Uribe's attempts to win approval of the trade deal in the United
States Congress. In the past, paramilitaries were responsible for many
of those killings, though it was unclear whether any of the extradited
leaders were directly linked to the recent crimes.

In any case, the move by Mr. Uribe demonstrates a resolve to confront
the paramilitaries despite a slow-burning scandal of revelations of
ties to the militias that had ensnared the president's political
supporters, including top lawmakers and Mr. Uribe's former
intelligence chief.

"This is an astonishing move for Uribe, who is trying to demonstrate
to the U.S. Congress that rumors of his ties to the paramilitaries are
false," said Bruce Bagley, an expert on the Andean drug war at the
University of Miami. "This should go over well with the Democratic

Still, perceptions of justice will depend on the sentences meted out.
Mr. Bagley said human right groups would closely follow the
sentencing, especially after moves by the Bush administration to
reduce prison terms for top drug traffickers in exchange for
information about the functioning of their networks.

American officials were vague as to whether prison sentences would be
lenient or long. The Justice Department in Washington said in a
statement that it had assured Colombia's government that it would not
seek life sentences for any of the defendants.

The paramilitary leaders extradited to the United States included a
top warlord, Salvatore Mancuso, who oversaw atrocities like the
massacre of 15 civilians and displacement of more than 600 people in
1997 in the town of El Aro, which has come to symbolize the path
undertaken by the militias throughout the 1990s.

Mr. Uribe's government, the Bush administration's top ally in Latin
America, has already extradited more than 700 Colombians to the United
States since 2002. Most of those extraditions were of low-level
operators in Colombia's resilient cocaine trade.

Despite the disbursement of more than $600 million a year in aid from
the United States to fight drug trafficking and leftist guerrillas,
Colombia remains the world's largest cocaine producer and the source
of about 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States.
Paramilitary leaders came to control many of the thriving drug syndicates.

Landowners established the private armies in the 1980s to combat the
leftist insurgencies, but the paramilitaries eventually attained broad
influence in Colombia's economic and political structures. Disclosures
of ties between the paramilitaries and prominent political supporters
of Mr. Uribe have recently shaken the country.

For instance, Mr. Uribe's cousin and close political collaborator,
Mario Uribe, a former senator, was detained in April on charges of
collaborating with the paramilitaries. And more than two dozen other
members of the Colombian Congress have been arrested on claims of
having similar ties.

Some of these revelations were obtained from the jailed warlords as
part of a peace process that demobilized thousands of combatants in
the private armies. That process is now thrown into doubt with these

"The idea that the United States will require the paramilitaries to
collaborate with the victims is a lie that is being sold to the
country," said Eduardo Bocanegra, the lawyer for Rodrigo Tovar Pupo,
one of the extradited warlords.

"The reparations were not only monetary," Mr. Bocanegra said. "They
were also symbolic; the paramilitaries were providing information
about the bodies found in mass graves."

But Mr. Uribe said on Tuesday that an agreement had been reached for
the proceeds obtained from fines and confiscations of property from
the paramilitary leaders in the United States to go to Colombian
victims or their families. "This is notice," Mr. Uribe told reporters
in Bogota, "that the law must be respected."

Maria Eugenia Diaz contributed reporting from Caracas, and Jenny
Carolina Gonzalez from Bogota, Colombia. 
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