Colombia extradites paramilitary commanders

Colombia extradited 14 top commanders of the right-wing paramilitaries to the US May 13 on drug trafficking and other charges. Security forces rousted the warlords from their prison cells in a surprise pre-dawn operation and took them to BogotĂĄ’s military airport. Several arrived in tanks under heavy guard. They were then shackled to the seats of a Drug Enforcement Administration jet bound for the US.

“These were the worst of the worst,” JosĂ© Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, told the Houston Chronicle. But he warned the New York Times: “These men are not going to be held accountable for the human rights violations they committed. Victims in Colombia will not be able to confront their tormentors and receive the reparations they deserve.” (HC, May 15; NYT, May 14)

Colombian authorities seized $25 million in properties—luxury ranches, farms and tracts of land—from warlord Salvatore Mancuso upon extraditing him. President Alvaro Uribe said one of his reasons for extraditing the warlords was their failure to make serious reparations to victims. A report released the day after the extradition by the Colombian prosecutor’s office, the FiscalĂ­a, revealed that the warlords have thus far had made only token offerings. One leading commander, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo AKA “Jorge 40”, whose Northern Bloc had 21,000 complaints filed against it, offered a car. Another, Diego Murillo AKA “Don Berna”, promised to hand over five properties. Eduardo Pizarro, who heads the National Reparations and Reconciliation Commission, said the warlords have handed over just $4.6 million, while Fiscal General Mario IguarĂĄn estimates unforfeited assets to be worth more than $200 million. (AP, Europa Press, May 14)

Upon arrival in the US, the 14 were spread out over Miami, Tampa, Washington, Houston and New York for initial federal court appearances. They could face 30-year prison terms, although the Bush administration agreed not to seek life sentences in exchange for extradition. (AP, May 14)

Attorney Paul Wolf, on the scene in Washington DC, identifies the men as:

Salvatore Mancuso
Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias “Jorge 40”
Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna”
Ramiro Cuco Vanoy
Francisco Javier Zuluaga, alias “Gordolindo”
Pablo Sevillano
HernĂĄn Giraldo
Nodier Giraldo
Eduardo Enrique Vengoechea Mola
Guillermo PĂ©rez Alzate, alias “Pablo Sevillano”
Juan Carlos Sierra, alias “El Tuso”
MartĂ­n Peñaranda, alias “El Burro”
Uver Anibal GĂłmez, alias “El Mellizo”
Manuel Enrique Torregrosa

Wolf writes:

A number of Colombian commentators saw today’s extradition of 14 AUC commanders to face drug trafficking charges in the US in the worst possible light. Many believe the militia bosses escaped punishment in Colombia, and that the public has lost the opportunity to implicate President Alvaro Uribe in their crimes. In my view, nothing could be further off the mark.

These extraditions dealt a crushing blow to the AUC’s leadership and put a lot of distance between Uribe and some of his darker political supporters. Instead of 4 to 8 years in the relative comfort of ItagĂŒĂ­ [prison, MedellĂ­n], these men now face prison terms up to 40 years, during which they will probably be treated as terrorists in the US prison system… [W]hat looked like an outrageously corrupt situation was actually a set-up. ItagĂŒĂ­ was not Uribe’s “La Catedral”—the palatial prison built to house Pablo Escobar 20 years ago. It was a trap.

See our last posts on Colombia and the paramilitaries.

  1. “Don Berna” arraigned in NYC
    From the New York Times, May 15:

    Colombian Warlord Pleads Not Guilty to Drug Charges
    A right-wing Colombian paramilitary leader who has been accused of ordering hundreds of political assassinations and smuggling tons of cocaine into the United States — including drugs that were sold from a busy Brooklyn crack house — pleaded not guilty to drug charges Wednesday in federal court in Manhattan.

    The paramilitary leader, Diego Fernando Murillo, 47, was extradited from Colombia on Tuesday along with 13 other jailed warlords as part an effort by President Álvaro Uribe to take a hard line against them and defuse a scandal. Mr. Murillo had been held in Colombia since 2005.

    The heavyset Mr. Murillo, who has a prosthetic leg and entered the courtroom with a pronounced limp, held his loose-fitting blue jeans up with one hand. He appeared weary and remained seated as his lawyer entered the not guilty plea.

    The indictment against Mr. Murillo charges that he conspired to import thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the United States and to launder the drug proceeds. Prosecutors said the group for which he was the de facto leader, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, supported its paramilitary activities and enriched its leaders through drug trafficking. The State Department has designated it as a foreign terrorist organization.

    During the brief court proceeding, Paul R. Nalven, a lawyer for Mr. Murillo, portrayed him as a pleasant and placid diplomat who served as a negotiator between Colombia’s government and the right-wing paramilitary faction he heads.

    Contending that his client “conducts himself like a gentleman” and presents “zero physical threat,” Mr. Nalven asked the judge, Richard M. Berman of Federal District Court, to consider overruling a decision by the United States Marshals Service to house Mr. Murillo in a high-security section of the federal jail in Manhattan. Judge Berman suggested that Mr. Nalven contact federal jail authorities.

    One of the prosecutors, Eric Snyder, an assistant United States attorney, acknowledged that Mr. Nalven’s client was a sophisticated man, but he painted a very different picture of him.

    “We argue that he is a sophisticated man who is capable of being the de facto leader of a 15,000-strong paramilitary organization, which was a cocaine importation empire,” Mr. Snyder told the judge. “We would also argue that, as opposed to being a tranquil person, we will offer evidence that he was in fact an assassin in MedellĂ­n” in his earlier years.

    Responding to Mr. Nalven’s contention that his client respected authority, Mr. Snyder said Mr. Murillo was “widely believed to have been involved in the murder” of a member of the Colombian Congress. Others of the extradited warlords had been tied to senior lawmakers in the Colombian Congress and to members of Mr. Uribe’s family.

    Mr. Snyder said the murder of the member of Congress led to Mr. Murillo’s arrest, but investigators have said the investigation into Mr. Murillo, who was believed to be responsible for much of the cocaine that wound up in New York City, began there in 2003 with a New York detective who first heard about him from an informant.

  2. “Don Berna” linked to Peace Community massacre
    From FOR Colombia Program Peace Presence Update, June 2008:

    May 13 brought promising news in the field of justice and accountability for human rights violations committed against the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Captain Guillermo Gordillo, the highest army official arrested so far in connection with the February 2005 massacre, seeking some leniency, had finally decided to cooperate with prosecutors, and confessed that the massacre was perpetrated in a joint operation by the 17th Brigade and right wing death squads under the command of paramilitary leader Don Berna.

    He went further to say that his superiors were implicated in the massacre, and were aware of what was happening. According to the daily El Tiempo, Gordillo told human rights prosecutors that the military operation had been “planned long ago from above, with ranking commanders.”

    The hearing was adjourned. The next day, May 14, Don Berna and 13 other paramilitary leaders who had demobilized in the framework of the so-called Justice and Peace Law were sent to the United States to face drug-related charges. With the extradition of paramilitary bosses went Gordillo’s willingness to confess: on May 15, Gordillo’s attorney requested that the hearing be suspended indefinitely, a move suggesting that his client’s willingness to cooperate with prosecutors had come to an end.

  3. “Don Berna” pleads guilty
    From Reuters, June 17:

    NEW YORK – A former top Colombian paramilitary commander pleaded guilty on Tuesday to conspiring to smuggle tons of cocaine worth millions of dollars into the United States, U.S. prosecutors said.

    Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, 47, pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court after Colombia’s surprise decision to extradite him along with 13 other paramilitary leaders in May.

    Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan say Murillo, also known as “Don Berna,” was a paramilitary chief who once dominated the Medellin underworld as a leader of the United Self-Defenses Forces of Colombia (AUC). He faces up to 33 years in prison when he is sentenced December 12.