Pubdate: Fri, 6 Mar 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Chris Kraul, Reporting from Bogota, Colombia


Hebert Veloza Garcia Is Sent to New York to Face Drug-Trafficking
Charges. Rights Groups Fear That Could Mean Details of Government
Collusion With the Militias May Never Be Known.

One of Colombia's most feared paramilitary leaders was extradited to
the United States on Thursday despite protests from human rights
groups concerned that details of atrocities and government collusion
with militias may never be revealed.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials escorted Hebert Veloza
Garcia, better known as "HH," onto a plane headed for New York, where
he will face drug-trafficking charges.

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.

Similar protests were heard in May, when Colombian President Alvaro
Uribe gave the green light to extraditions of 14 top paramilitary
leaders wanted in the United States on drug and terrorism charges.

Veloza was a close associate of paramilitary leaders Carlos Castano
and Salvatore Mancuso. Unlike 31,000 paramilitary fighters who had
surrendered by 2006 in response to government promises of leniency,
education and financial aid, Veloza remained at large until he was
captured in 2007.

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.

He was boss of the paramilitaries' Bananeros block, which fought to
dislodge leftist guerrillas in the Uraba banana zone in northern
Colombia. Paramilitaries under his command killed hundreds of
suspected sympathizers and forced thousands more from their homes.

Veloza, 41, also testified that paramilitary units he led received
help from Colombian army Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio. Del Rio commanded
the 17th Brigade, which human rights groups say was responsible for
dozens of extrajudicial killings of civilians. The officer is being
investigated for possible collusion with militias.

U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield has said that American authorities
will make extradited paramilitary leaders available to Colombian
investigators. But Human Rights Watch researcher Maria McFarland said
that so far most of them have been too preoccupied with their U.S.
cases to cooperate.

Uribe postponed Veloza's original extradition date by six months so he
could have more time to confess his misdeeds. But prosecutors say he
got only halfway through the list.

"The details of those crimes, including the collaboration of the
military, locations of bodies and reasons for the violence, remain in
darkness," said John Lindsay-Poland, director of the Fellowship of
Reconciliation, a New York-based peace activist group.
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