Colombia: 'Drug Lords' Getting Free Pass on Worse Crimes?

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by
Inter Press Service

Colombia: 'Drug Lords' Getting Free Pass on Worse Crimes?

by
Ali Gharib

 WASHINGTON  - Yet another of
Colombia’s top paramilitary leaders was extradited to the U.S. Thursday
to be brought up on drug trafficking charges despite the objections of
some rights groups and questions raised by Colombian politicians
visiting Washington.

Éver Veloza García was put on a plane
for New York by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, making him
the 15th high-ranking paramilitary leader to be extradited.

After decades of violent conflict, some of those active in
Colombian affairs worry that the singular focus of the U.S. on
prosecuting drug crimes could prevent the truth from coming out about
human rights abuses, the paramilitaries’ collusion with the government,
and answers to questions about the locations of mass graves and stolen
lands.

Being in U.S. custody cuts off the paramilitary leaders from
Colombian access, and some observers suspect that, amid a political
scandal connecting his supporters to the paramilitaries, Colombian
President Alvaro Uribe may be whitewashing the record.

"A lot of the truth about Colombia’s conflict left the country
when these guys were extradited," said Adam Isaacson of the Centre for
International Policy (CIP), noting that while other Colombians have
tried to gain access to the men, Uribe’s diplomatic corps have "not
been asking about any of this."

Further complicating the relationship between Colombia and the
U.S. is a free trade agreement that was pushed for by the then-George
W. Bush administration and his right-wing ally, Uribe.

But despite Bush’s glowing praise - over the objections of
rights groups, Uribe was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom -
Democrats in Congress were more sceptical about the Colombian
president’s human rights record.

Many Democrats had objected to the trade deal because they see
protection of labour and human rights as an essential prerequisite for
the trade agreement and argued that those concerns had not been
adequately addressed. But Bush and Uribe insisted that the situation in
Colombia was much improved.

"Colombia’s been the victim of a lot of partisan squabbling in
Washington," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. But
with the executive and Congress unified, Shifter thinks Washington’s
mixed messages to Colombia will likely end.

"They will be more clear about what they want from Colombia,"
he told IPS, noting that the trade deal would likely be impossible
without further Colombian progress on human rights.

Details, however, haven’t been hashed out or disclosed because
U.S. President Barack Obama has not yet put together his team to deal
with these issues.

Emphasising the strain put on the U.S.-Colombia relationship -
especially between Congress and Uribe - Human Rights Watch (HRW)
released a statement this week signed by eight U.S. rights
organisations and trade unions, including Human Rights First, the
International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the American Federation of
Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), and the
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

The groups called for the "Colombian government to respect the work of
trade unionists and human rights defenders in Colombia and to retract
statements that put these workers at risk."

The statement was a reaction to threats against Lina Paola
Malagon, a lawyer with Colombian Commission of Jurists who has worked
on rights issues and on behalf of trade unions.

The threat to Malagon came just weeks after she made a visit
to the U.S. to present a report on worker’s rights and violence against
unions to Rep. George Miller’s Committee on Education and Labour.

In February, Uribe said that Colombians who travel abroad and
discuss the country’s internal rights and union problems were part of
the "intellectual bloc of the FARC," the acronym for the leftist rebel
group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Uribe also later said
those who went before Miller’s committee were practicing "political
hatred."

"Why are they so scared of what people are going to say if
things are so much better [in Colombia]?" asked Gimena Sanchez of WOLA.
"Why are they censoring people?"

Uribe has been known to lash out against Colombian rights
groups, but usually steers clear of speaking forcefully against
U.S.-based groups, though he has harshly criticised HRW in the past.

But Uribe’s Vice President Francisco Santos did not mince words when
describing Miller on Thursday, calling the Congressman "an enemy of
Colombia."

At the crux of these tensions is paramilitary violence against
unions and rights groups. HRW reported that since 1986, more that 2,600
unionists have been killed, usually at the hands of paramilitary
groups.

The paramilitary groups were formed in the 1980s ostensibly to protect
farmers and others from leftist guerillas, but since then, they have
grown into organised crime groups and involved themselves in the drug
trade.

The paramilitaries are also well connected to right-wing
political movements in Colombia. The country is in the midst of being
rocked by a scandal where huge numbers of pro-government legislators
have been tied to the paramilitary groups.

As Colombia tries to dig out the truth behind this scandal as
well as other issues, such as identifying huge swaths of land seized by
paramilitary groups and the locations of mass graves, the investigation
turns to those arrested for information.

But by extraditing paramilitary criminals - especially leaders
- to the U.S., some Colombians worry that the truth about these events
will be buried forever. The U.S. is not trying the men for human rights
violations or mass murder, but is instead pursuing them strictly as
drug criminals.

The complicated situation spurred two members of Columbia’s senate -
opposition politician Piedad Cordoba and Uribe supporter Lara Restrepo
- who were in Washington this week meeting with U.S. lawmakers and
rights groups to ensure that the now 15 men are all held accountable
for crimes against humanity.

Another crucial aspect of the delegation’s trip is to secure the
information needed to flesh out Colombia’s history of atrocities so
that there may be reconciliation, said Sanchez.

"It’s important that there is facilitation between the U.S.
and Colombia and that the victims in Colombia have access to this
information," she told IPS.

Sanchez said that the men likely had information about the
paramilitary-politics scandal, the locations of mass graves, and the
seizure of lands by paramilitary groups, but that information could be
buried if the U.S. only focuses on drug charges.

But because the Obama administration has not set out a firm
agenda on Colombia yet, there has been very little movement, and the
delegation this week wasn’t able to garner much information.

"The visit raised more concerns than it answered questions," said Sanchez, who had been in contact with the delegation.

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