Vanished From Justice: Colombia’s Paramilitary Leaders

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

Women, War & Peace producers Jennifer Janisch and Oriana Zill de Granados are investigating U.S. drug cases against the leaders of Colombia’s paramilitary organization, many of which have disappeared from the public record in recent months. These articles are part of a series of Colombia reports coming in the next month. 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.

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.

Since 2006, more than a dozen of Colombia’s most notorious paramilitary leaders have been extradited to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges in federal district court in Washington. The extraditions stunned Colombians, who had hoped testimony from the men, given as part of a national amnesty program, would help expose the truth about two decades of vicious murders, assaults and kidnappings.

In videotaped confessions in Columbia, one had taken responsibility for more than 450 slayings. But outrage over the extraditions reached a boiling point earlier this year, when U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton blocked public access to seven of the paramilitary leaders’ cases, erasing virtually every trace of their existence.

There is no way to know if the men have negotiated lenient sentences — or if they are even still in custody. An eighth defendant, accused in Colombia of murdering a judge, was released on his own recognizance, records show, after his cousins in College Park vouched for him. The Colombian cases are drawing new attention to the practice of sealing entire court files, triggering a broader controversy over judicial secrecy. Though court policies discourage this degree of secrecy, a 2009 internal study showed that federal judges order it in thousands of cases a year, sometimes without justification.

Some judges not only block public access, but also remove file numbers and all other signs of a case from the record. In the D.C. district, there is no uniform procedure for sealing, leaving individual judges to decide how much to disclose, Chief Judge Royce Lamberth said. The cases against the Colombian paramilitaries show the stakes of a transparency debate that might otherwise seem academic.

“More than anger, I feel powerless,” said Bela Henriquez, whose father, Julio, was kidnapped and killed on the orders of one defendant. “We don’t know what they are negotiating, what conditions they are living under. What guarantee of justice do we have?”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public access to court cases is protected by the First Amendment because it is a crucial check on judicial power. But there are factors — national security material, an ongoing government investigation, vulnerable witnesses or victims — that can justify secrecy.

It’s likely the cases involving the Colombians were sealed to protect their safety, because they are cooperating with U.S. drug enforcement authorities, several former prosecutors said. “It’s very possible,” Lamberth said. U.S. prosecutors, defense attorneys and Judge Walton declined to comment.

An agreement involving secrecy would require authorization at the highest levels of the Justice Department. Prosecutors must obtain approval from the deputy attorney general before requesting, or agreeing to, the sealing of a criminal case. But ultimately, sealing decisions are made by individual judges. Court policies urge judges to shield as little as possible — a document, a witness’s name — and for as short a time as possible. Total secrecy is supposed to be ordered only under “extraordinary circumstances,” according to legal precedent. Even in those cases, judges are supposed to unseal records eventually.

In 2006, the Associated Press reported a sharp rise in secrecy in criminal cases, prompting concern that Bush-era prosecutors and judges too often operated outside public scrutiny. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts supplied data for the study, but spokesman David Sellers now says the figures provided were flawed. He said wide variations in record-keeping among individual courts make accurate tallies impossible.

A year after the AP report, the federal judiciary strongly urged courts to mark sealed cases as “under seal” rather than completely omitting them from the record, as happened in the Colombian cases. Yet, the 2009 internal study showed that a dozen courts still weren’t complying. That study, done by the research arm of the federal judiciary, looked at all cases that were fully sealed in 2006, giving perhaps the most complete picture of how — and how often — total secrecy is used. Two percent of about 1 million cases filed that year were sealed. In many, the secrecy was justified, but researchers found dozens of instances of sealing for no legitimate reason. Approximately one of every 275 criminal cases in 2006 was fully sealed to protect cooperators or ongoing investigations.

Last month, the committee overseeing the study recommended that the judiciary’s leadership remind judges not to order complete secrecy unless “there are no other options.” The panel stopped short of suggesting that this be made mandatory.

“The number of sealed cases was so small,” said Judge Harris Hartz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the committee’s chairman. “Judges’ decisions to seal a case are heavily dependent on the specific facts and circumstances of that case.” The panel recommended that electronic records systems in the courts be programmed to track sealing.

In Colombia, the secret U.S. prosecutions have darkened hopes of achieving redress for thousands of atrocities tied to a network of paramilitary groups known as the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The extradition of key leaders to the United States disrupted a historic amnesty program intended to demobilize units and deliver basic information, such as the location of bodies, to victims’ relatives.

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.

Roxanna Altholz, the acting director of the International Human Rights law Clinic at UC Berkeley who represents Colombian victims of paramilitary violence, said the U.S. has broken a promise made on the day of the extraditions by Ambassador William Brownfield.

“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,” Brownfield said on May 13, 2008 in Colombia.

“So far,” says Altholz, “none of those promises have been kept.”

Human rights lawyers have been unable to track the status of at least 25 other Colombian paramilitary members being prosecuted in various U.S. courts because substantial portions of their cases have been sealed.

Lamberth acknowledged that victims may feel deprived of justice when cases are sealed. “I honestly don’t know how we balance letting victims have a say,” he said. “If there is a way to do it without endangering [cooperators'] lives, we are open to that.”

Given their brutal resumes, the whereabouts of the defendants are cause for concern, prosecutors said. “If one of them could be living in Bethesda, for example, down the street from the Jones family with a dog and 2.5 kids, then the public has a strong interest in knowing that information,” said David Weinstein, who prosecuted drug cases as an assistant U.S. attorney in Southern Florida from 1998 to 2009.

One paramilitary leader, Hughes Manuel Rodriguez Fuentes, was released on bond in 2008. Reporters visited an address in College Park where one of Rodriguez Fuentes’ cousins lives, according to court records. “I don’t know where he is,” said the relative. “And good luck finding him.”


  1. L H Thompson says:

    while i grew up undeer “jim crow” laws in the U.S., I was somewhat suprised to learn of a large popularion of Blacks in Colombia. I have visited the west Indies, even where Columbus landed on his second voyage in Guadelouupe. It was good to know that the people of Colombia enjoyed a small success, bit more light needs to shone on their plight. I think that PBS went a long waay in doing just that. To the peoples, I say fight on. Achiving power is never easy. It takes a long non-violent struggle as oiur civil rights battle here in the U.S.A.

    • COJONES says:


  2. KwusuAakhu ShepsHeru says:

    Again, this is a damn shame on All human-beings involved! Humans, you’ve got to Learn, one way or another that we are all that we got. ‘All’ human-beings Deserve to live good on the earth. There is enough resources here for everyone. It’s just that our leaders in charge (our governments) are corrupt from their head to their toes. Who among you can stand up to these corrupt individuals?? Do we need ‘demon-slayers’ on the scene?? Why won’t our governments work in the Best Interest of the People?? Is it because they want all of the wealth as if Master and Slave still exists? We are only humans and we are all Equal. It is only the illusion that the greedy have inside their heads that want to continue to kill each other in order that some should live better than others. This is not right nor is it intelligent. And it is now time for all humans on the earth to shift to a more intelligent state-of-mind. We the people, must make our government ‘behave themselves’ and make the best decisions for the interest of every Human-Being on earth. Wake up! 2011 and we’re still fighting and killing one another?? Don’t you all see this as being barbarians??? Our governments all over the earth are dealing in barbarianisms and murder in the first degree!!! This must stop in order for us all to have a decent life and oneness and equality for all. I hold all of our governments and politicians accountable for these crimes and we the people must stand-up to these beast!! We must bring forth A Change that is best for All. Or else, we all must die in brutal slavery, again and again and again until we each figure this shit out, which is Equality For All and the Good Life for All Human-Beings on earth no matter what colour or race that they are. We are all The Same no matter what ‘some’ of you think. Get it together or else!

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