Colombian para operative sentenced in Texas

Colombian paramilitary operative Diego Alberto Ruíz Arroyave was sentenced to seven and a half years in a US prison June 2 for trying to acquire anti-aircraft missiles, grenade launchers and other powerful weapons for $25 million worth of cocaine. Ruíz Arroyave pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to provide material support and resources to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), designated a foreign terrorist organization by the US government.

“In my prayers, I thank God…for the courage he has given me to make reparations for the damage I have done in my life,” Ruíz read in Spanish from a statement. His wife, who had come from Colombia, sat in the courtroom.

Under sentencing guidelines, US District Judge David Hittner in Houston could have given Ruíz a term of more than 27 years. But he agreed to a request from prosecutor Jeff Vaden to reduce the sentence because of Ruíz’s cooperation with US and Colombian authorities. Erik Sunde, Ruíz’s attorney, said his client was not a combatant in the AUC, but a “go-fer” for his cousin, Miguel Arroyave, who was leader of the paramilitary network’s Centaurs Bloc, one of the AUC’s biggest factions (widely implicated in labor repression in Colombia’s Medio Magdalena region). Ruíz has helped demobilize paramilitary fighters as part of a peace effort in Colombia, even after his cousin was killed in 2004 in the midst of peace talks with the Colombian government, Sunde said. “He has continued with this process until this day,” Sunde said.

The case against Ruíz stemmed from a 2004 indictment that accused him of participating in a scheme to acquire the Russian and Eastern European-made weapons for the AUC. The weapons included shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47 assault weapons. The AUC apparently never received the weapons.

Prosecutors say that for a little over a year from 2001 to 2002, those who took part in the scheme met in Houston, Mexico City, London, Bogotá, and other locations with an FBI informant. Ruíz was one of nine people in the plot, including Uwe Jensen, a naturalized US citizen from Denmark who sat on that country’s parliament from 1975 to 1979. Sunde also represented Jensen. All but two have been sentenced. Carlos Ali Romero Varela, who brokered the deal, is set to be sentenced next week. The final defendant remains a fugitive.

Ruíz was one of 14 Colombian paramilitary members extradited to the US in May 2008 to face charges of drug trafficking and supporting a terrorist organization in cases around the country. Since then, three other paramilitary members have been extradited to the US. Victims associations and human rights activists have protested the extraditions, saying they could undermine investigations into atrocities. Prosecutors in Colombia blame the paramilitaries for at least 10,000 murders. In all, about 900 criminal suspects have been extradited to the United States under Uribe, the vast majority on drug charges. (AP, June 2)

See our last post on Colombia’s paramilitaries.

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