Prosecution Gaffe Absolves Colombia Paramilitary of Drug Trafficking

The Colombian Supreme Court has absolved a former paramilitary leader of drug trafficking charges, reigniting doubts about the country’s willingness and ability to administer justice to its most renowned war criminals.

The former commander-in-chief of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) Salvatore Mancuso has been exonerated from drug trafficking charges because the Attorney General’s Office failed to provide essential evidence, reported El Tiempo.

The Supreme Court ruled that although prosecutors gave general information on drug trafficking operations in the area, they did not provide fact-based proof regarding modus operandi or when and where the crimes took place, reported Colprensa.

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Among other factors, the prosecutors failed to indicate the number and location of airplane runways used to traffic drugs, what properties were used, and which other actors were involved in the crimes, the news outlets reported.

The decision partially acquits Mancuso, along with former paramilitary chief Jorge Ivan Laverde Zapata, alias “El Iguano,” and other members of the AUC’s notorious Catatumbo Bloc from a 2014 sentence against them by a court in Bogota.

Mancuso’s crimes were allegedly committed between 1996 and late 2004. Prosecutors also accused him of involvement in the cultivation, production and trafficking of drugs.

Colprensa reports that this second ruling also deemed it inadmissible to bring charges against the defendants that were not related to the Catatumbo Bloc — such as the drug trafficking case — seeing as the court’s duty was to examine the activities of the paramilitary bloc in the state of Norte de Santander, not crimes that occurred in other states before 1999.

The United States indicted Mancuso for drug trafficking in 2002, and he was extradited in 2008, following the demobilization of the AUC umbrella paramilitary organization.

InSight Crime Analysis

This significant gaffe has renewed attention to the legal and ethical uncertainties in the prosecution of some of Colombia’s most infamous war criminals. As this case illustrates, the Colombian justice system continues to make basic mistakes in the prosecution of paramilitaries.

Other cases have raised similar red flags. In 2013, the Supreme Court absolved Mancuso from a 1996 massacre that he had admitted to years earlier because prosecutors did not present a solid case.

Whether or not these errors are a result of deficiencies, they raise doubts on the determination of Colombian authorities in convicting known war criminals. In another recent case, the Supreme Court cited lack of evidence when it discarded a case against Colonel Alfonso Plazas, despite the fact that he had already been found guilty of the forced disappearance of several people in a 1985 raid of the Palace of Justice in which leftwing guerrillas had taken several Supreme Court magistrates and employees hostage.

The questions are not limited to Colombia’s justice system. The prosecution of former paramilitary leaders in US courts has also come under scrutiny. 

Numerous AUC chiefs, including Mancuso and Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias “Jorge 40,” are serving time in the United States despite the demobilization agreement brokered with the Colombian government in 2004, which was initially believed to shield them from extradition.

Over ten years later, it is still unclear whether these will face prison in Colombia to pay for copious human rights abuses once their largely drug-related sentences in the United States are up.

The lenient sentence recently given to former Northern Bloc commander Jorge 40 by a US court illustrates this problem. In Colombia, Jorge 40 stands accused of over 20,000 crimes, but he could walk free in a mere five years.