For human rights experts on Colombia, the revelation that seven out of fourteen paramilitary leaders extradited to the U.S. in 2008 were removed from the public record is not surprising, but rather another nail in the coffin of Colombia’s Justice and Peace process.
PBS and the Washington Post broke the story Saturday that a U.S. judge had decided to seal the cases of a total of 25 extradited Colombian paramilitaries over the last few months, among them some of the Andean nation’s most vicious warlords, who are allegedly guilty of hundreds, if not thousands, of crimes against humanity.
According to the report, families of paramilitary victims are outraged by the decision, as the paramilitary leaders are no longer collaborating with Colombia’s Justice and Peace process, which requires participants to give detailed testimony on their crimes and compensate victims and their families in exchange for lower sentences. The Justice and Peace process has been the subject of much criticism.
Because information on the paramilitaries’ cases is sealed, there is no way of knowing if the men negotiated lenient sentences or if they are even still in custody.
Colombia Reports spoke to two human rights experts on Colombia about how the sealing of these records will affect Colombia’s Justice and Peace process.
Ramifications for Colombian justice
For Michael Reed, director of the International Center for Transitional Justice‘s (ICTJ) Colombian program, the sealing of records and its ramifications for victims of paramilitary violence, are just the latest in a series of Justice and Peace failures.
“From the start, from the get go there has been a lack of transparency,” Reed says. “Justice and Peace was shattered, it was blown to pieces when the paramilitaries were extradited,” in May 2008 on drug trafficking charges, without the approval of Colombia’s Supreme Court.
Reed says that since their extradition there has been a consistent lack of public information and “instead of getting better it’s getting worse.” He sees the removal of the seven paramilitaries from public records simply as the latest slap in the face in a long series of blows to Colombia’s attempts to reparate victims of paramilitary violence.
“This is the continuation of an old issue, in which these individuals were taken out of Colombian custody and are now under U.S. custody, which is obviously very much against the interests of the victims,” Reed says.
Furthermore, the ICTJ director believes that the agreement reached in July between the U.S. and Colombian governments, which aims to provide Colombian justice greater access to extradited paramilitaries so that they can testify about their crimes, is simply ineffective.
“There need to be greater incentives to get them back into the system and to make them talk,” he said.
The two governments reached the agreement following concerns that extradition had prohibited paramilitary leaders from effectively participating in the Justice and Peace process. As per the new agreement, the paramilitaries who have already been convicted and sentenced will be required to attend 21 hours of questioning a week, while those not yet sentenced must attend 40 hours a week.
Reed calls the hours of required questioning “just logistics” and while authorities from both countries maintain that the new agreement will increase the Colombian justice system’s access to paramilitary testimony, Reed believes that “Colombian human rights have been trumped by [U.S.] drug trafficking interests.”
“What we’ve said for a long time now is that U.S. authorities could condition any agreement [with paramilitaries in custody] on increased cooperation. To date they have not done so” and nothing will change “unless there is a manifestation of political commitment on behalf of U.S. authorities to bring Colombian justice to the table.”
Roxanna Altholz, the associate director at the University of California Berkley’s International Human Rights Law Clinic agrees.
According to the human rights attorney, top extradited leaders “are now in the U.S. facing prosecution for drug trafficking and not for human rights abuses. They have no incentive to participate in Justice and Peace.”
Implications for the U.S.
Altholz is a lawyer representing Bela Henriquez, whose father Julio Henriquez was an environmentalist and human rights defender who was kidnapped and killed by paramilitary forces on the orders of Hernan Giraldo Serna, alias “El Patron” in 2001. El Patron is one of the extradited king pins whose records have been sealed.
For Altholz, the extraditions and their implications for the Colombian justice reflect “the U.S.’s failure to take steps to hold individuals accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes accountable.”
The human rights attorney says that the U.S. courts generally uphold the public right to access to information and the fact that they have blocked access to individuals implicated in numerous counts of crimes against humanity “is disturbing.” Altholz believes the issue “transcends Colombian victims’ rights” and calls the rights and safety of the American public into question as well.
While she says it is impossible to speculate on the fate of the paramilitary leaders whose files have been sealed, Altholz comments that “what I can look at is what’s happened with other drug czars that the U.S. extradited and prosecuted.”
“If you look at the U.S. track record, you see that of the top drug dealers sentenced, many reached plea agreements with the U.S. government, some reached agreements that include witness protection schemes and face changing plastic surgery.”
“Given that they’ve [the extradited Colombians] been in the U.S. for two years and haven’t been sentenced, it would appear that they’re pulling out,” Altholz says.
Looking to the future
Altholz views Colombia’s Justice and Peace process as “a fundamentally flawed process,” but she believes that “despite those flaws it has produced significant results.” She says that while the extradition of key paramilitary leaders led to the loss of access to significant information, the future of the Justice and Peace process depends on the will of the Colombian administration.
“There are still individuals in Colombia that can provide information that could lead to the dismantling of criminal organizations,” she says.
In February Altholz and a group of colleagues compiled a report titled Truth Behind Bars that examines the impact of the extradition of Colombian paramilitary leaders on the Justice and Peace process.
In May of this year the ICTJ submitted a document to the U.S. Senate outlining why the U.S. anti-narcotics policy of extraditing senior paramilitary commanders has been detrimental to human rights and the rule-of-law in Colombia.
In June Colombia modified its extradition law so that demobilized paramilitaries participating in the Justice and Peace program can not be immediately extradited until they have adequately complied with the national reparation process
The extradited paramilitaries removed from the public record are: Rodrigo Tovar Pupo alias “Jorge 40,” Hernan Giraldo Serna alias “El Patron, ” Jesus Antonio Giraldo Serna alias “El Mono,” Martin Peneranda Osario alias “El Burro,” Nodier Giraldo Giraldo alias “El Cabezon,” Edwin Mauricio Gomez Luna alias “El Repetido,” and Eduardo Enrique Vengoechea Mola alias “El Flaco.”