Extradition to stand trial in the U.S., long the biggest fear of Colombian drug traffickers, could now be a softer option, offering shorter jail terms and even impunity to criminals.
The first treaty governing extradition of Colombians to the U.S., most on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, came into force in 1982. It was the subject of fierce opposition from criminal interests, most notably Pablo Escobar, who tried to force the government to block the measure through targeted assassinations and bombing attacks. In 1991, due in part to this pressure, a new constitution banned the extradition of nationals, but this measure was overturned in 1997. Fewer than 400 Colombians were extradited in the first few years after extradition was reintroduced, but more than 1,100 were during President Alvaro Uribe’s time in power, between 2002 and 2010.
The prospect of extradition was hated and feared by Colombia’s criminals. In foreign jails, as well as being far from their families, they would be unable to exercise the kind of influence that they might in Colombia’s weak and corrupt justice system. But according to a report in Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Colombian criminals are increasingly chosing not to fight extradition. One reason for this, according to the paper, is that the time spent opposing the process, often two years, does not count towards their sentence in the U.S., so the legal battle could simply lengthen the time they spend in prison. Another reason given by lawyers who spoke to El Tiempo is that, if prisoners choose not to fight extradition, they have a better chance of gaining concessions by cooperating with U.S. justice, as they can offer up-to-date knowledge of drug trafficking activities.
This kind of bargaining — providing intelligence about their associates and trafficking business — can allow high-level drug traffickers to gain major shortening of their sentences. This has garnered a fair amount of criticism in Colombia. In addition, paramilitary leaders who have committed serious human rights violations, responsible for ordering massacres and torture, face only drug trafficking charges in the U.S. It may be easier for paramilitaries to make beneficial deals with the U.S., as the authorities in that country would not face public pressure to punish these men in the same way that Colombian authorities would.
Most notorious was the surprise extradition of fourteen of the biggest paramilitary leaders, who had surrendered to Colombian justice via the peace accords made between the government and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) in the mid 2000s. The stated reason was the commanders’ failure to cooperate fully with the peace process and end their drug trafficking activities.
Some have suggested that part of the reason for the mass extradition of the paramilitary leaders in 2008 was a desire on the part of authorities to stem the flood of details regarding AUC collaboration with politicians. Information about these ties, present on a much greater scale than had previously been realized, began spilling into the public domain when the paramilitary bosses began testifying about the politicians they had had dealings with, in what became known as the “parapolitics” scandal.
Indeed, the extradition did hinder the delivery of paramilitary testimony. There are reports in Colombian media that, two years on from the mass extradition, in May 2010, only six of the paramilitary bosses sent to the U.S. had testified before Colombia courts, as had been promised. There are various explanations for this: many of the jailed warlords feared for their families in Colombia, saying that their relatives had not been given the protection they were promised, and could suffer revenge attacks if the boss revealed information about his criminal dealings.
A report by University of California, Berkeley in 2010 argued that extradition had granted impunity to many paramilitary leaders. In at least seven cases the records of these men have been sealed, so that there is no way of knowing where they are or even if they are still in prison. This means that Colombian justice does not have access to these men, who will not then testify about the horrendous crimes they committed in their home country. For many who lost relatives to the paramilitary atrocities, this means they may never know what exactly happened to their relatives, or where their bodies were dumped afterwards.
In a recent interview with El Tiempo, police chief General Oscar Naranjo defended the process of extradition, denying that it offered impunity to criminals. He said that Colombian authorities expected the U.S. to begin sharing more information on the whereabouts of extradited criminals, and on any information that they handed over. According to Naranjo, extradition is a vital weapon against crime, as it breaks the ties between imprisoned criminal bosses and their organizations, and stops them running their operations from jail. His argument is backed by many incidences of criminal bosses continuing to exert power after being imprisoned in Colombia. One clear example is that of Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” who was Medellin’s biggest criminal leader for many years. He continued to run the city’s underworld after his arrest in 2005, and it was only when he was sent to the U.S. in 2008 that a succession crisis kicked off in his group, the Oficina de Envigado.
The question now is how useful extradition remains as a judicial tool in Colombia, with some signs that it is increasingly employed for political ends. A clear example is the case of Walid Makled, a confessed drug trafficker who was captured in Colombia in 2010. Both Venezuela and the U.S. requested his extradition, but after some months of delay Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos plumped for Venezuela. Santos’ government has given various explanations for this decision, including that Venezuela handed their request in first. But it seems likely that Bogota judged it more politically expedient to build ties with their neighbor, in the hopes of gaining further cooperation in rebuilding trade ties and security cooperation fractured under the watch of former President Alvaro Uribe. Given the growing presence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations on Colombian soil, Colombia’s recently-negotiated extradition treaty with that country raises the possibility of more cases like Makled’s in the future, where the government’s loyalties may be divided.
Extradition has proven helpful in Colombia when employed to cut off criminal warlords from their organizations. But as indicated by the sealing of paramilitary testimony in the U.S., extradition has also served to undermine Colombia’s long and difficult reconciliation process. In many ways, especially when it comes to the victims of the AUC’s human rights crimes, extradition has obstructed justice rather than ensured it.