In the early hours of May 13, Colombian security forces transported 14 high-ranking paramilitary leaders from their prison cells to an aircraft that whisked them out of the country and to the United States. Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe had ordered that the paramilitary leaders be extradited to face drug trafficking charges in the United States because, as Interior Minister Carlos Holgumn stated, “In some cases they were still committing crimes and reorganizing criminal structures” from their prison cells. The paramilitary leaders were engaged in a demobilization process that called for them to confess their crimes in return for reduced jail sentences. In their testimonies, several paramilitary leaders revealed links between the right-wing militia organization and elected officials and multinational corporations. By extraditing the paramilitary leaders, President Uribe has ensured that they will do no further harm to himself and his political allies as he has effectively stymied future investigations into the so-called para-politics scandal.
Sixty-one elected officials, the majority of whom are political allies of President Uribe, are currently under investigation for ties to right-wing paramilitaries belonging to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Thirty of the officials are already in prison, including the president’s cousin and former senator Mario Uribe. Much of the evidence linking the politicians with the AUC has come from testimonies provided by paramilitary leaders as part of the demobilization process.
For President Uribe, the demobilization of the AUC — the country’s principal violators of human rights — was supposed to represent a peace feather in his cap. The original goal of the demobilization was to have the paramilitary leaders serve prison terms as short as 22 months — once the negotiating process was considered as time served and good behavior was taken into account. In return, the paramilitary leaders would demobilize all their fighters, confess their crimes and completely dismantle their criminal organizations, including their drug trafficking networks — or at least appear to do so.
However, due to international pressure and virulent protests from sectors within Colombian civil society, Uribe was forced to revise the plan to provide the AUC leaders with a virtual amnesty, instead insisting that they serve eight years in prison. The paramilitary leaders responded by threatening to withdraw from the process. Uribe then ordered them transferred from the ranch in northern Colombia where the negotiations had taken place to maximum-security prisons.
The original plan hatched between Uribe and the AUC leaders began to unravel as animosity between the government and the paramilitaries intensified. Demobilized paramilitary leaders soon began revealing ties between the militia and elected officials allied with the country’s president. The para-politics scandal has not only undermined the legitimacy of the Colombian government, it has also hurt Uribe’s efforts to sign free trade agreements with the United States and Canada.
With the paramilitary leaders safely ensconced in maximum-security prisons, there was no need to secretly whisk them out of the country in the middle of the night. Even if they were still managing their illegal activities from within their prisons cells — and they likely were — the Uribe administration could have allowed the AUC leaders to complete their testimonies before announcing its intention to extradite them. However, to do so would have ensured that Uribe and his political allies would have become further enmeshed in the para-politics investigation.
The most effective way of silencing the paramilitary leaders was to extradite them to the United States where they will stand trial on drug trafficking charges. Meanwhile, their human rights abuses and links to Colombian officials will be considered irrelevant to the cases against them and so will remain secret. In all likelihood, as has occurred with FARC guerrilla leader Simón Trinidad since he was extradited to the United States, the paramilitary leaders will be kept in seclusion making it impossible for them to make public any new evidence that could prove uncomfortable for Uribe and his political allies. Furthermore, the Bush administration is more than happy to oblige Uribe efforts to thwart justice given that the Colombian leader is Washington’s closest ally in Latin America.
President Uribe likely knew that any prior announcement of his intention to extradite the paramilitary leaders would have resulted in a significant backlash from the political opposition, criminal investigators and human rights organizations, all of who would demand that he allow the testimonies to continue. With some of the most prominent paramilitary leaders, including AUC chief Salvatore Mancuso, now in US prisons, it will prove much more difficult for prosecutors to effectively investigate the links between politicians and the right-wing death squads. Claudia Lopez, an independent investigator, acknowledged this new reality when she declared, “They’ve taken away all the witnesses.”