During a long murky war in Colombia, warlords who emerged to fight rebels became some of the most feared people in the country. Over the last year, some of those warlords who led paramilitary groups have been extradited to the United States, which sees the men in another light - as notorious cocaine traffickers. Now those extraditions have ended, blocked by Colombia's supreme court, which says sending the warlords away has deprived victims at home of justice.

From Bogotá, NPR's Juan Forero explains.

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

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of guns cocking)

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: That is until 2006, when the paramilitaries finished laying down their arms in government demobilization ceremonies.

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.

But today, the ambitious reconciliation effort is in disarray after the government extradited 15 top paramilitary commanders.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: The extraditions last year were big news here. President Alvaro Uribe told the country the commanders had not cooperated with investigators.

President ALVARO URIBE (Colombia): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: He said they continued committing crimes, from drug trafficking to murder.

But don't tell that to Bela Henriquez.

Ms. BELA HENRIQUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Henriquez is a biologist who works in a government lab, where she recently explained how she studies mosquitoes. Twenty-five, well-educated and ambitious, hers is a future filled with promise. But, like thousands of Colombians, she can't let go of the past.

She's obsessed with finding out as much as she can from the paramilitaries who murdered her father.

Ms. HENRIQUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: She said it's a driving necessity. In testimony two years ago, one of the commanders, Hernan Giraldo, confessed to ordering her father's murder.

Ms. HENRIQUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

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

And then, Giraldo was extradited.

Michael Reed says 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. Reed is a lawyer with the International Center for Transitional Justice, a New York group that studies the efforts to unravel Colombia's war crimes.

Mr. MICHAEL REED (Lawyer, International Center for Transitional Justice): Basically a political decision was made to trump human rights investigations and prosecutions with drug-trafficking prosecutions.

FORERO: In a recent ruling, Colombia's Supreme Court said the extradited commanders have not been able to continue corroborating from American jails. Augusto Ibanez is president of the court.

Mr. AUGUSTO IBANEZ (President, Colombian Supreme Court): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Ibanez said the court 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.

Mr. WILLIAM BROWNFIELD (U.S. Ambassador to Colombia): Clearly, the Supreme Court laid out that problem for us, and I have some ideas, and we are working some ideas to solve it.

(Soundbite of music)

FORERO: Soothing music plays at a house where Bela Henriquez meets with others whose fathers were also killed by the paramilitaries.

Ms. HENRIQUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: She says they get together to fight for justice, to guarantee that the atrocities don't ever happen again.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota, Colombia.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.