BOGOTÁ, May 13 (IPS) - Fourteen former paramilitary chiefs were quietly extradited from Colombia to the United States before dawn on Tuesday on drug trafficking charges, in a move that drew criticism from human rights experts.
The militia chiefs were safe from extradition as long as they respected the 2005 "justice and peace law" that governed the demobilisation of the far-right paramilitary groups, which are blamed by the United Nations for 80 percent of the human rights crimes committed in Colombia’s four-decade civil war.
President Álvaro Uribe said the 14 leaders were extradited because they continued committing crimes after demobilising, were not providing full confessions as required by the justice and peace law, and had failed to compensate their victims, "by hiding assets or delaying their handover."
"Manipulated truth is no longer truth. Truth has to be told without calculations of timing, without delays," said the president.
"The government has requested, and the United States has agreed, that the wealth that the extradited persons agree to hand over through accords with judges in that country be dedicated to reparations for victims in Colombia," he said.
"There is nothing standing in the way of moral reparations being made from the United States," added Uribe, to calm the worries of the victims of the paramilitaries, who include nearly four million people forcibly displaced from their homes.
Taken by surprise by the extradition, Rodrigo Tovar, alias "Jorge 40", known for killing off Kankuamo Indians in the northern Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, cursed and shouted that they had been betrayed, which would seem to indicate that there was no negotiation with the paramilitary chiefs for their extradition.
According to Tovar’s lawyer, Hernando Bocanegra, the paramilitary leaders were confessing to their crimes "little by little" because that is how the justice and peace law was designed.
In the confession hearings, each survivor had the right to personally ask the paramilitary chiefs about their loved ones who had been killed. The defendants only responded when they personally knew about that particular murder, and had to consult with their subordinates when they didn’t, "which was the reason for the delay," said the attorney.
"They were talking," said Bocanegra, who added that there was a "timeframe that was being followed. In the stage of confession, they had gotten to the chapter of murders, massacres and genocidal crimes."
Some had started to give details on joint actions carried out by paramilitary groups and military units, another point on the agenda. Others had already announced that they would implicate local businessmen in their testimony.
Among those who were extradited Tuesday were several top leaders, like Salvatore Mancuso, Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna" -- the heir to late druglord Pablo Escobar -- and the commander of the paramilitary militias on the north coast of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Hernán Giraldo.
Iván Cepeda, spokesman for the Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State (MOVICE), complained to the press that the extraditions would "seriously affect" the rights of survivors, and said they were aimed at keeping the paramilitary leaders from continuing to provide the names of military, political and business accomplices and allies.
Eduardo Carreño, vice president of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, a human rights group, told IPS that "this move confirms what we have said from the start: that a Congress with a strong paramilitary presence legislated on its own behalf, and that the victims are the forgotten ones in this process."
More than 60 lawmakers, nearly all of them pro-Uribe, are under investigation for their ties to the paramilitaries, as part of what has been dubbed the "parapolitics scandal."
They include the rightwing president’s cousin and main political ally, former senator Mario Uribe.
Carreño said that "no one has ever talked to the victims, offered them guarantees, or made sure that there will be no repetition" of war crimes like torture, massacres, forced disappearances, targeted killings of community leaders, activists and trade unionists, and the forced displacement of rural families and communities to seize their land.
According to the paramilitaries and their defenders, the war crimes were committed against "subversives," people who collaborated with the leftist insurgent groups that emerged in the 1960s.
"To think that reparations for the victims can be achieved from the United States is a total fallacy. And it is impossible for the victims to take out passports and apply for visas" to the United States, said Carreño, referring to the possibility of survivors and family members of victims attempting to seek justice in that country.
"This is a mockery," Gustavo Gallón, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, another leading human rights organisation, told IPS.
"It was clearly spelled out: if they were really committing crimes after demobilising -- as they were doing -- they were to be referred to the ordinary courts, as established by the justice and peace law," where they would face sentences of up to 40 years rather than the light sentences, of no more than eight years, provided for by the agreement with the government, he said.
The Uribe administration says it will send prosecutors and lawyers to the United States to collect the testimony of the former paramilitary chiefs, in order for the justice and peace law process to continue.
Santiago Rodríguez, the former lawyer of Colombian drug trafficker Hernando Gómez Bustamante, who was extradited to the United States in mid-2007 after being deported to Colombia from Cuba, pointed out that a person cannot be tried for the same crime in two different places.
Furthermore, said Rodríguez, everything that the extradited paramilitaries say from this moment on can be used against them.
"I would not allow a client of mine to talk" about crimes committed in Colombia other than drug trafficking offences, for which the 14 were extradited, the Cuban-American lawyer said in a telephone interview from the United States with the Bogotá station W Radio.
He said he would only allow his client to talk if there were a written agreement approved by the U.S. Justice Department guaranteeing protection from prosecution for other crimes.
He pointed out that according to the U.S. Federal Rules of Evidence, testimony on other crimes provided by defendants during a trial -- like the kind of confessions required by the justice and peace law -- can be used against them.
According to Rodríguez, that means the former paramilitary chiefs extradited to the United States should not have to cooperate with the Colombian justice system, which could complicate their legal situation in the United States. "Protections would have to be put in writing," he reiterated.
Leftwing Senator Gustavo Petro said President Uribe "dealt several blows in one" with the extraditions.
"The first blow," he told IPS, "is against truth."
"If Uribe says there is a pact with the United States" for the prosecution of war crimes to continue in that country, which does not recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, "it is a secret pact, because no one knows about it. The only thing the U.S. is interested in is curbing drug trafficking," he said.
"The second blow is against the victims and the possibility of compensation, which becomes even more remote if the truth is not revealed," and "the third is against Colombian justice," because with this decision, the president is "disregarding the Colombian justice system and recognising the U.S. system," said the senator.
The National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation (CNRR), created by the justice and peace law, called for "a cooperation agreement between the U.S. Justice Department and Colombia’s Attorney-General’s Office, so that the rights of the victims are placed in a central spot on the judicial agenda."
Another agreement that should be reached, said the CNRR, would provide a guarantee that the victims "can move ahead with civil and criminal lawsuits against the extradited paramilitary chiefs and thus achieve respect for their rights."