Early Release for Colombian Paramilitary in US Raises Questions about Extradition

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Extradited Colombian paramilitary and drug trafficker Juan Carlos Sierra Ramirez, alias “El Tuso,” has been released early for collaborating with US authorities, again raising questions about the effectiveness of extraditing the country’s criminals to the United States.

Sierra will be returned to Colombia in June following the decision of a Virginia judge, reported El Tiempo, meaning that his US sentence — which began in 2008 — has been reduced from 10 to five years.

While in jail, the former member of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) provided information against a number of high profile individuals, including former Police General Mauricio Santoyo, who was found guilty of aiding the AUC; former President Alvaro Uribe, who Tuso accused of instigating a smear campaign against the Supreme Court; and testified in a string of cases tying politicians, including Uribe’s cousin Mario Uribe, to paramilitary and criminal groups.

In Colombia, he faces an arrest warrant from the Justice and Peace Tribunal on charges he has already accepted, including terrorist financing, conspiracy, money laundering and weapons charges, reported Semana.

Sierra was newly accused in a Colombian court in 2011 of trafficking drugs in exchange for weapons for the AUC in the late 1990s and early 2000s, performing many deals with Honduran criminals. He demobilized with the Heroes de Granada bloc in 2005, though allegations were later made that the entire bloc was false and faked the process to get demobilization benefits.

The sentence reduction provoked controversy in some sectors. Senator Juan Manuel Galan said that extradition had become “attractive” to Colombian drug traffickers because of short sentences.

InSight Crime Analysis

The release of El Tuso raises a concern previously addressed in early 2012, when then-Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra said that short US sentences may lead Colombia to change its strategy regarding extradition. 

Once viewed as the punishment most dreaded by Colombian traffickers, plea bargains have made extradition to the United States more attractive to criminals. Colombian traffickers are reportedly increasingly choosing not to fight extradition, believing that going quietly increases their chances of gaining concessions in exchange for intelligence.

The widespread use of extradition under former President Alvaro Uribe, who sent more than 1,100 Colombians to the United States during his two terms in office, was questioned for other reasons. Tuso was one of a number of high-ranking AUC figures extradited in 2008, which some suggested was a maneuver to avoid the sort of damaging testimony Tuso later provided from being made public.

Nonetheless, President Juan Manuel Santos has apparently continued the trend started by Uribe, extraditing some 300 Colombians as of April 2012. Meanwhile, Colombia continues to consider new extradition treaties with other countries, in addition to the 15 already in existence.

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