One of Colombia's most notorious paramilitary warlords, "Jorge 40," could be free from prison in the United States in just five years following the conclusion of a strange judicial episode that raises yet more questions over the United States role in prosecuting Colombian paramilitaries.

On November 6, a Washington DC court handed down a 16-year sentence for drug trafficking to Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias "Jorge 40," the former commander of the Northern Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). As Jorge 40 has already served over nine years on remand, he could be freed in just five years time with further reductions for good behavior.

Prosecutors in the case had demanded a 30-year sentence for Jorge 40, labelling him one of the most important leaders of one of the most important drug trafficking operations in the world -- the AUC. The AUC was the government's proxy army for over a decade, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of Colombians in its war against leftist insurgents.

However, the former paramilitary chief denied this, saying although he "taxed" and provided security to drug trafficking operations, he himself was no drug lord. In a nearly three-hour speech that included references to Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire and Thomas Hobbes, Jorge 40 instead portrayed himself as a political prisoner who only broke the law because it was necessary to protect his people from the menace of left wing guerrilla groups, reported El Tiempo.

In his verdict, Judge Reggie Walton sympathized with Jorge 40's argument. According to El Tiempo, the judge told Jorge 40, "I have no doubt that what you did was to fight against an enemy that you believed was a threat to your country and that your role in this conspiracy was not that of producer or distributor."

However, he added, his role in the drug trade had contributed to the trafficking of hundreds of kilos of drugs to the United States and caused pain to thousands of people.

"What you did is serious because it destroyed the lives of others, even though you believed you were saving the lives of your people," El Tiempo recorded him as saying.

InSight Crime Analysis

Jorge 40 was one of the most powerful and feared of the AUC leaders, and his name is associated with some of the most infamous massacres and assassinations committed during the paramilitaries' bloody and brutal counter-insurgency campaign in the 1990s and 2000s.

In March 2006, Jorge 40 demobilized along with 4,000 of his men following the disarmament agreement struck between the AUC and the Colombian government. However, he allegedly continued to run paramilitary networks from prison, and in 2008 was extradited to the United States along with 13 other AUC chiefs for breaching the terms of his demobilization agreement.

Initially, it appeared Jorge 40 would take the same path as the other AUC leaders by cooperating with the US authorities in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and in 2009, he accepted drug trafficking charges against him.

SEE ALSO: Profile of the AUC

However, this only marked the beginning of a period of judicial flip-flopping and bitter arguments with his various legal teams, reported El Tiempo. In 2011, he withdrew his confession, only to withdraw this withdrawal and again plead guilty in 2013, when on the verge of standing trial.

The following year, though, Jorge 40 again withdrew his confession and sacked his lawyer. He claimed his lawyer had pressured him to plead guilty because of a conflict of interest -- his lawyer also represented another AUC leader, Salvatore Mancuso, who had cut a deal that could potentially be undermined by Jorge 40 going to trial. However, the court rejected this argument, as Jorge 40 had known this when he accepted the deal on his lawyer's advice.

Despite this torturous -- and expensive -- legal process, the sentence handed down to Jorge 40 is comparable to those received by his former AUC comrades that cut deals with the US authorities. Mancuso, for example, was praised by US authorities for his complete cooperation, but ended up with a sentence just a few months shorter than that received by Jorge 40.

While the judge appeared sympathetic to Jorge 40's arguments, the lenient sentence could also be related to the twists and turns of the legal process. Before sentencing, Jorge 40 had announced he would appeal the verdict due to the decision of the court not to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea, according to El Tiempo, raising the possibility of further years of legal wrangling followed by a lengthy trial. With the possibility of release in just five years dangled in front of him, Jorge 40 is now unlikely to pursue this option.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

Jorge 40's sentence adds to the controversy surrounding the prosecution of AUC leaders in the United States. The process has been polemical from the start as it has meant some of the most violent human rights abusers in Colombia's history have been charged with drug trafficking in a foreign country instead of facing the victims of their crimes against humanity.

The controversy deepened with the deal cutting and light sentences, many of which Colombians were not even permitted to hear about following the decision -- taken by the same judge that sentenced Jorge 40 -- to seal the files in seven of the cases involving senior AUC figures.

However, while Jorge 40's saga through the US justice system may have ended with unexpectedly lenient treatment, it might not end in freedom.

In August, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled to exclude him from Justice and Peace -- the judicial framework that allows demobilized paramilitary leaders to receive reduced sentences for confessing their crimes. Jorge 40 stands accused of over 20,000 criminal acts but admits responsibility for just 99, reported Semana, and so has failed in his obligations under the terms of the agreement. As a result, if he is deported back to Colombia after completing his sentence in the United States, then he will be tried as a common criminal and will likely face a lengthy sentence.

While Jorge 40's saga through the US justice system may have ended with unexpectedly lenient treatment, it might not end in freedom

Nevertheless, the stubborn former warlord is unlikely to have given up hope. Other former AUC leaders, such as Juan Carlos Sierra Ramirez, alias "El Tuso," have successfully argued their lives would be in danger if they were returned to Colombia after completing their sentence in the United States and have been granted permission to stay. While this may be a tough case to make, Jorge 40 has already shown an ability to successfully defy conventional legal logic.

Investigations

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