Latin America

Paramilitary Extraditions Spark Debate In Colombia

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Bela Henriquez works in a government lab. i

Bela Henriquez, a 25-year-old biologist, works in a government lab, where she studies mosquitoes. Henriquez's father was killed by paramilitaries, and she is trying to find out everything she can. Juan Forero for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Juan Forero for NPR
Bela Henriquez works in a government lab.

Bela Henriquez, a 25-year-old biologist, works in a government lab, where she studies mosquitoes. Henriquez's father was killed by paramilitaries, and she is trying to find out everything she can.

Juan Forero for NPR

Over the past year, top warlords from Colombia's once-fearsome paramilitary movement have been extradited to the United States. U.S. law enforcement officials consider the men notorious cocaine traffickers.

But some in Colombia say the paramilitary commanders should instead be in their country, testifying about the atrocities they committed in a long, murky war. And now, Colombia's Supreme Court has agreed — blocking extraditions and leaving the Obama administration scrambling to find a way to restart them.

Colombia has been gripped by a drug-fueled conflict for years. Marxist rebels tried to take power. Right-wing paramilitary groups — illegal militias with close links to Colombia's army — fought to stop them.

The war raged until 2006, when the paramilitaries finished laying down their arms in government demobilization ceremonies.

Reconciliation Effort

Special judicial hearings were then staged to deliver justice to the victims of war crimes. The offer to paramilitary commanders was leniency in exchange for a truthful recounting of how they ordered assassinations and massacres.

More than 1,200 hearings have been held, many of them dramatic showdowns between victim and victimizer. Investigators have determined that paramilitary militias are responsible for 24,000 homicides, wide-scale disappearances and the theft of billions of dollars in land.

But today, the ambitious reconciliation effort is in disarray after the government extradited 15 top paramilitary commanders to the United States. The extraditions last year were big news in Colombia. President Alvaro Uribe told the country that the commanders had not cooperated with investigators. He said they continued committing crimes, from drug trafficking to murder.

But don't tell that to Bela Henriquez — a 25-year-old biologist who works in a government lab, where she studies mosquitoes. Well-educated and ambitious, she has a future filled with promise. But, like thousands of Colombians, she can't let go of the past.

Missing Details

Henriquez wants to find out as much as she can from the paramilitaries who murdered her father in 2001. Julio Henriquez was killed because of his work organizing poor farmers along a vital cocaine-trafficking corridor. In testimony two years ago, one of the commanders, Hernan Giraldo, confessed to ordering her father's murder.

But she says the details were scant — and that the testimony didn't mean that justice was served.

And then, Giraldo was extradited.

Giraldo and the other paramilitary commanders took with them a treasure trove of historical information about the links between Colombia's elite and the paramilitaries, says Michael Reed, a lawyer with the International Center for Transitional Justice, a New York group that studies the efforts to unravel Colombia's war crimes.

"Basically a political decision was made to trump human rights investigations and prosecutions with drug-trafficking prosecutions," Reed says.

Cutting Red Tape

In a recent ruling, Colombia's Supreme Court said the extradited commanders have not been able to continue cooperating from American jails.

Augusto Ibanez, president of the court, said it would only restart extraditions once the U.S. ensures that extradited warlords comply first with Colombian investigations.

William Brownfield, the American ambassador in Bogota, said the U.S. is working to cut red tape.

"Clearly the Supreme Court laid out that problem for us, and I have some ideas, and we are working some ideas to solve it," Brownfield says.

As for Henriquez, she says she gathers with others whose fathers were killed by the paramilitaries to fight for justice — to guarantee that the atrocities don't ever happen again.

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