Colombian Victims of Paramilitary Violence Plead for Access to U.S. Justice System

September 10, 2010 | Jennifer Janisch and Oriana Zill de Granados

Women, War & Peace producers Jennifer Janisch and Oriana Zill de Granados are investigating the U.S. drug cases against the leaders of Colombia’s paramilitary organization, many of which have disappeared from the public record in recent months. Here is a background report on the tragic toll this secrecy is taking on Colombian victims of paramilitary violence:

Bela_croppedBela Henriquez, a 26-year-old biology student from Colombia, says her father, Julio Henriquez, an environmentalist and human rights defender, had been organizing peasants in the Caribbean state of Magdalena to stop growing coca plants, the chief ingredient in cocaine, and to farm alternative legal crops.

But paramilitaries belonging to the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) controlled coca production in this region, and on the orders of their commander, Hernan Giraldo Serna (alias “El Patron”), they kidnapped and disappeared Henriquez after a community meeting in 2001.

Giraldo Serna confessed to the crime as part of an amnesty program in Colombia called Justice and Peace. He and thousands of paramilitaries demobilized and turned themselves in to the authorities in 2006, promising to tell the truth about the murders and forced disappearances they carried out in exchange for more lenient jail sentences and other benefits.

But on May 13, 2008, in a move that shocked Colombians, President Alvaro Uribe authorized the extradition of Giraldo Serna and 13 other top paramilitary commanders to the United States to face narco-trafficking charges. The possibility that Bela would receive any justice for her father’s murder vanished overnight.

For half a century, war has raged in Colombia between leftist guerrillas fighting the state and right-wing paramilitaries that originally formed to protect landowners from the guerrillas. But paramilitaries, like the guerrillas, soon began funding their operations through the narcotics trade and systematically killing anyone they believed had leftist sympathies.

According to a report published by Colombia’s Office of Justice and Peace Promotion earlier this year, some 4,000 ex-combatants of the country’s largest paramilitary organization, the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), have confessed to committing 30,470 murders from mid-1980 to 2003, a death toll which rivals atrocities carried out by the harshest Latin American dictatorships.

The Justice and Peace process was introduced as an attempt to stop the bloody civil war and provide reconciliation and healing. It gave paramilitaries who agreed to demobilize incentives like reduced jail sentences in exchange for information about the massacres and forced disappearances they had committed.

The government sponsored hearings where paramilitary members were supposed to confess their sins, called versiones libres. Victims and their families were permitted to be present at the sessions, and could provide prosecutors with specific questions about the circumstances surrounding their loved one’s deaths. Thousands of family members in the predominantly Catholic nation have asked to simply learn where the bodies are buried so that they can provide a proper burial.

According to Roxanna Altholz, a Colombian-American lawyer and Acting Head of University of California, Berkeley’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, the confessions were an important part of Colombia’s peace process. “In the U.S., justice looks something like long prison terms,” she says. “In Colombia, justice is truth.”

On May 13, 2008 over a dozen of the AUC's top paramilitary commanders were extradited to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges.

On May 13, 2008 over a dozen of the AUC's top paramilitary commanders were extradited to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges.

As the Justice and Peace process developed, however, questions arose as to whether the paramilitary soldiers were actually telling the whole truth about their crimes. Many also refused to give up land and money acquired during the war as reparations to the victims, a requirement of the reconciliation process. And evidence obtained from one paramilitary commander’s laptop computer proved that many of the “demobilized paramilitaries” were actually peasants recruited as stand-ins, not actual combatants.

The laptop computer, which belonged to paramilitary commander Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias “Jorge 40,” held other unsavory truths about the AUC’s ties with Colombia’s military and political elites. Among those proven to have connections with paramilitary commanders were President Alvaro Uribe’s closest political allies, causing an enormous scandal in Colombia, called “para-politics.”

A year and a half later, as the scandal continued to unfold, extradition requests for 14 top paramilitary leaders — including Tovar Pupo and Giraldo Serna — were approved and implemented by President Uribe. They were flown on Drug Enforcement Administration planes to the United States on May 13, 2008 to face drug trafficking charges, some for cases as many as eight years old.

Political experts in Colombia and sources inside the Department of Justice in the United States believe commanders like Tovar Pupo and Giraldo Serna were extradited to the U.S., and effectively silenced, in part because they had begun to talk about their close ties to Colombian lawmakers, economic elites and multinational corporations.

But Colombian victims were stunned and saddened by the extraditions, as they believed the move would end any possibility of learning the full truth about the murders and disappearances of tens of thousands of people.

“They should first be judged for the human rights crimes they’ve committed in Colombia,” said Bela Henriquez. “Narco-trafficking is a small crime in comparison.”

On the day of the extraditions, William Brownfield, the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, held a press conference where he promised that the U.S. government would enable the men to continue participating in the Justice and Peace confession sessions.

“The victims, their representatives and the prosecutors of Colombia will continue to have access in the U.S. to the legal system, to the extradited individuals and to their assets,” he said. “Once they have completed their process in the U.S., the trial, the sentencing, the sanction and if it is so, the imprisonment, in that moment they will be available to the Colombian legal system.”

Yet today, after two years, victim’s advocates in Colombia and the United States say few of these promises have been kept.

Two-thirds of the U.S. cases against high-ranking paramilitaries are sealed, so limited information is available to the public or the victims. To date, none of these defendants have stood trial for the drug trafficking charges against them. Thirteen appear to have signed plea agreements. At least two have been released in the United States.

In May 2010, seven of the cases against the paramilitaries — including the case of Giraldo Serna, who admitted to murdering Bela Henriquez’s father — were completely removed from the U.S. public court record known as Pacer, and all evidence that there had ever been cases against these men disappeared from view.

Even the Colombian Supreme Court has complained about the difficulty of obtaining information about the plea agreements these paramilitaries are striking with U.S. authorities.

Roxanna Altholz, acting head of UC Berkeley’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, is attempting to compel the Department of Justice to allow Colombian victims access to paramilitaries in U.S. custody.

Roxanna Altholz, acting head of UC Berkeley’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, is attempting to compel the Department of Justice to allow Colombian victims access to paramilitaries in U.S. custody.

“This was really a historic moment in Colombia’s history,” Altholz says, “and instead what has happened is the commanders, the individuals who know the most, are sitting in the U.S. giving information about drug routes … instead of [giving] information about where the remains of the disappeared are, [and about] who they worked with in the Colombian government.”

This month, in response to the complaints, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Colombian Ministry of the Interior and Justice released a new plan to group some of the extradited paramilitaries in two U.S. jails, and to make them available a certain number of hours a week to participate via video-conference in Colombia’s Justice and Peace program.

However, the majority of extradited paramilitaries do not want to participate — they pulled out of Colombia’s Justice and Peace process upon arriving in the United States.

“They had incentives in Colombia to talk,” says Altholz. “What incentives do defendants facing drug charges and long jail sentences in the U.S. have to talk about their human rights abuses in Colombia?”

Altholz is currently attempting to use the U.S. Crimes Victims’ Rights Act to pressure the Department of Justice and U.S. Federal Courts to allow Colombian victims of massacres, forced disappearance and murder to be given standing in the cases in the United States. The Department of Justice would not comment on this issue but they have argued in court pleadings that they don’t believe the victims should have standing because they were not “directly and proximately harmed” by the narcotics importation conspiracy charges.

With Giraldo Serna’s case mired in such a high degree of secrecy, Bela Henriquez holds out little hope that he will ever receive punishment for the murder of her father.

“More than anger, I feel powerless,” she said. “We don’t know what they are negotiating, what conditions they’re living under … What guarantee of justice do we have?”

Janisch and Zill joined forces with ProPublica reporter Chisun Lee to expose the high degree of secrecy surrounding the U.S. federal drug cases against Colombia’s paramilitary leaders. The collaboration appears in the Washington Post.