Colombia's true crime

Why the extradition of paramilitaries to the US is a victory for Alvaro Uribe.

    Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian president, has
    benefitted from the extraditions [AFP]

    It has been an article of faith since the days of the Pablo Escobar, one of Colombia's most feared drug lords, that extradition to the US was the worst of all punishments and to be avoided at all costs.

    Escobar is reported to have had judges assassinated for even broaching the idea, and is reputed to have organised the 1985 assault on the Colombian supreme court which killed half its members.

    His personal prison, La Catedral, invariably described as "luxurious," is the model for doing time in Colombia.

    But the drug trade has always been a vicious, fratricidal business, and with its growth, and fragmentation, has become ever more so.

    And now, Diego Murillo Bejarano, a former lieutenant of Escobar's, is himself in the US after a recent mass extradition of alleged drug lords.

    "Don Berna", as he is affectionately called, rose from the Medellin cartel to become one of the leaders of the main right-wing paramilitary group, the United Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

    An astounding 13,000 people registered to hear him confess his crimes, as part of the peace process, or Justice and Peace Law, negotiated by the Colombian government for the demobilisation of the paramilitaries.

    Even under the perverse terms of this law, which many critics say sacrifices justice for peace, and allows "Don Berna" and his comrades to confess to crimes and pay reparations for leniency, he would surely have to serve some time in jail.

    It is no great leap of the imagination to suggest that his chances of surviving a prison sentence are far greater in a US federal penitentiary, safe from his many enemies, than in a Colombian jail.

    What then appeared at first to pose a potential threat to the peace process, the government’s sudden decision to mete out the ultimate punishment of extradition to "Don Berna" and 13 other top paramilitary commanders, may just turn out to be a fortuitous coincidence of interests.

    For Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian president, it was a clear triple victory.


    The media in both the north and south have noted that one of Uribe's primary policy objectives is the signing of a free trade agreement with the US.

    Mario Uribe, Alvaro's cousin,  is among those 
    involved in the "para-politics" scandal [AFP]

    The extradition was seen as an attempt to curry favour with the US, to convince Democratic politicians opposed to the deal that Colombia was committed to protecting US interests, placing the demands of US criminal justice above its own legal processes.

    One domestic dimension that has received less attention in the north, but is playing big in Colombia, is the seemingly abrupt end that the extradition has brought to the national soap opera called "para-politics".

    This is the ongoing series of revelations of close government ties - and Uribe's political allies in particular - with the paramilitaries.

    Everyone had been waiting for the climax, as the paramilitaries, in their Justice and Peace testimony, had provided a steady trickle of names and hinted of far more to come.

    Currently, 65 Colombian congressmen are facing charges, with 31 already convicted for ties to the paramilitaries.

    The last to be arrested in connection with the ongoing scandal is the president's cousin, Mario Uribe Escobar.

    Farc drama

    The extradition not only brought down the curtain before the anticipated conclusion, it cleared the stage, allowing the world to focus on the contents of the laptop allegedly belonging to the late Farc leader, Raul Reyes, and on the alleged ties of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [Farc] group.

    The extradition happened in the early hours of Tuesday and Ronald Noble, the secretary-general of Interpol, certified on Thursday that the files on Reyes' computer, which according to the Colombian army had been rescued following an attack on a jungle camp in Ecuador, had not been tampered with.

    By Saturday, Semana, a Colombian weekly magazine, was running a story that the attorney-general of the city of Medellin was complaining both the hard drives and mobile phone 'SIM' cards belonging to five of the extradited paramilitaries had been 'lost.'

    A good week for Uribe.

    No regrets

    There has been talk of the Peace and Justice process continuing, with the former paramilitaries testifying via closed circuit television from their federal penitentiaries in the US.

    The AUC has been accused of a number
    of human rights violations [GALLO\GETTY]

    Yet now that they have been extradited, it is unclear what their motivation would be to play along.

    It was never a role for which they were ever particularly well suited.

    These are not, after all, the kind of men disposed to unseemly acts of contrition.

    When they testified, there were no tears, hand wringing, or begging for forgiveness.

    Rather, they read from their laptops, listing crimes as though they were financial data.

    It will undoubtedly be a relief that the US Justice Department does not seem remotely interested in how many trade unionists they have assassinated - another annoying obstacle to the trade deal - or how many peasants they have had massacred.

    They will only be asked to talk about how much cocaine they have shipped to the US.

    The indictments did include membership in a "terrorist" organisation among the charges, but by now it should be clear that "terrorism" as a category refers often only to crimes committed against the US, and US interests.

    In their quest for leniency in their new circumstances, they may very well resort to the "Ahmed Chalabi strategy": To get what you want, tell them what they want to hear.

    Regional conflict

    It will be interesting to see if any of them end up with jail terms in the high double figures.

    A strategically lurid tale about Venezuelan smuggling routes, or claims of Hugo Chavez himself loading kilos of cocaine onto US bound planes, could have federal prosecutors breathing heavy, and slashing sentences.

    The need to discredit and isolate Venezuela is as important a shared policy for the two allies as the signing of the trade deal.

    Uribe does not want a peace process with the Farc; even if their atrocities are no worse than those committed by the demobilised paramilitaries.

    He is committed to a military solution in Colombia, and receives a healthy US stipend, via Plan Colombia, to stay committed.

    Hugo Chavez has offered to mediate the conflict on countless occasions, and seems to be the only one able to negotiate the release of Farc-held hostages, which had made him a regular stop for visiting European officials.

    And Uribe was running out of reasons for rejecting his overtures.

    The revelations from Raul Reyes' laptop, which now claim all the headline space in Colombia, effectively neutralise Chavez politically.

    He is now disqualified as an objective mediator.

    Trading for justice

    George Bush, the US president, has had no more stalwart an ally than Alvaro Uribe. Uribe not only continues to praise the Iraq war, but has also suggested it as a model for how the conflict in Colombia might be resolved.

    Bush is famously loyal to his friends, and the extradition might well be the gift that secures Uribe's political future.

    The big losers in all of this are the thousands of Colombians who had been asked to give up the right to see justice take its course, for the hope of finding out the location of the mass grave where their murdered loved ones are buried.

    They will have to give that up, as well, for the sake of a trade deal.

    As one Colombian trade unionist at a demonstration outside the US congress in protest against the trade deal, asked me: "Is it better to try someone for shipping five kilos of cocaine to the US, or for killing more than 2,000?"

    The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of Al Jazeera.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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