One of Colombia’s most feared paramilitary commanders was extradited to the US March 5—over the protests of local human rights groups concerned that details of atrocities and government collusion with paras may never be revealed. US Drug Enforcement Administration officials escorted Hebert Veloza Garcia AKA “HH” onto a plane headed for New York, where he faces drug-trafficking charges.
Half a dozen Colombian human rights groups wrote a letter last month to US Attorney General Eric H. Holder petitioning him to delay the extradition until after the completion of judicial proceedings in Colombia on paramilitary atrocities. Similar protests were heard in May, when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe approved extradition of 14 paramilitary leaders wanted in the US on drug charges.
Veloza was a close associate of top paramilitary commanders Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso. Unlike 31,000 paramilitary fighters who had surrendered by 2006 in under a government program of limited amnesty, Veloza remained at large until he was apprehended in 2007. Seeking to avoid extradition, he became a cooperative witness before special tribunals set up to investigate paramilitary crimes. In 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 peasants.
Veloza, 41, was boss of the paramilitaries’ Bananeros Bloc, which fought to dislodge guerrillas in the Urabá banana zone in northern Colombia. Paras under his command killed hundreds of suspected guerilla sympathizers and forced thousands more from their homes. Veloza also testified that paramilitary units he led received help from Colombian army Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio (a former Colombian congressional candidate). Del Rio commanded the 17th Brigade, which human rights groups say was responsible for dozens of extrajudicial killings of civilians. The general is currently under investigation.
US Ambassador William Brownfield has said that US authorities will make extradited paramilitary leaders available to Colombian investigators. Uribe postponed Veloza’s original extradition date by six months to allow more time for him to confess his crimes. But prosecutors say he got only halfway through the list, and human rights groups are skeptical that there will be a full accounting after his extradition. “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 Colombia program. (LAT, March 6)
Veloza was a key witness in at least three massacres in the San José de Apartadó Peace Community in the Urabá region, one of several such self-declared “peace communities” in Colombia that refuse collaboration with any armed faction in the civil war.