Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

US-COLOMBIA: "Drug Lords" Getting Free Pass on Worse Crimes?

Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Mar 6 2009 (IPS) - Yet another of Colombia’s top paramilitary leaders was extradited to the U.S. Thursday to be brought up on drug trafficking charges despite the objections of some rights groups and questions raised by Colombian politicians visiting Washington.

Éver Veloza García was put on a plane for New York by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, making him the 15th high-ranking paramilitary leader to be extradited.

After decades of violent conflict, some of those active in Colombian affairs worry that the singular focus of the U.S. on prosecuting drug crimes could prevent the truth from coming out about human rights abuses, the paramilitaries’ collusion with the government, and answers to questions about the locations of mass graves and stolen lands.

Being in U.S. custody cuts off the paramilitary leaders from Colombian access, and some observers suspect that, amid a political scandal connecting his supporters to the paramilitaries, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe may be whitewashing the record.

"A lot of the truth about Colombia’s conflict left the country when these guys were extradited," said Adam Isaacson of the Centre for International Policy (CIP), noting that while other Colombians have tried to gain access to the men, Uribe’s diplomatic corps have "not been asking about any of this."

Further complicating the relationship between Colombia and the U.S. is a free trade agreement that was pushed for by the then-George W. Bush administration and his right-wing ally, Uribe.

But despite Bush’s glowing praise – over the objections of rights groups, Uribe was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – Democrats in Congress were more sceptical about the Colombian president’s human rights record.

Many Democrats had objected to the trade deal because they see protection of labour and human rights as an essential prerequisite for the trade agreement and argued that those concerns had not been adequately addressed. But Bush and Uribe insisted that the situation in Colombia was much improved.

"Colombia’s been the victim of a lot of partisan squabbling in Washington," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. But with the executive and Congress unified, Shifter thinks Washington’s mixed messages to Colombia will likely end.

"They will be more clear about what they want from Colombia," he told IPS, noting that the trade deal would likely be impossible without further Colombian progress on human rights.

Details, however, haven’t been hashed out or disclosed because U.S. President Barack Obama has not yet put together his team to deal with these issues.

Emphasising the strain put on the U.S.-Colombia relationship – especially between Congress and Uribe – Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement this week signed by eight U.S. rights organisations and trade unions, including Human Rights First, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

The groups called for the "Colombian government to respect the work of trade unionists and human rights defenders in Colombia and to retract statements that put these workers at risk."

The statement was a reaction to threats against Lina Paola Malagon, a lawyer with Colombian Commission of Jurists who has worked on rights issues and on behalf of trade unions.

The threat to Malagon came just weeks after she made a visit to the U.S. to present a report on worker’s rights and violence against unions to Rep. George Miller’s Committee on Education and Labour.

In February, Uribe said that Colombians who travel abroad and discuss the country’s internal rights and union problems were part of the "intellectual bloc of the FARC," the acronym for the leftist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Uribe also later said those who went before Miller’s committee were practicing "political hatred."

"Why are they so scared of what people are going to say if things are so much better [in Colombia]?" asked Gimena Sanchez of WOLA. "Why are they censoring people?"

Uribe has been known to lash out against Colombian rights groups, but usually steers clear of speaking forcefully against U.S.-based groups, though he has harshly criticised HRW in the past.

But Uribe’s Vice President Francisco Santos did not mince words when describing Miller on Thursday, calling the Congressman "an enemy of Colombia."

At the crux of these tensions is paramilitary violence against unions and rights groups. HRW reported that since 1986, more that 2,600 unionists have been killed, usually at the hands of paramilitary groups.

The paramilitary groups were formed in the 1980s ostensibly to protect farmers and others from leftist guerillas, but since then, they have grown into organised crime groups and involved themselves in the drug trade.

The paramilitaries are also well connected to right-wing political movements in Colombia. The country is in the midst of being rocked by a scandal where huge numbers of pro-government legislators have been tied to the paramilitary groups.

As Colombia tries to dig out the truth behind this scandal as well as other issues, such as identifying huge swaths of land seized by paramilitary groups and the locations of mass graves, the investigation turns to those arrested for information.

But by extraditing paramilitary criminals – especially leaders – to the U.S., some Colombians worry that the truth about these events will be buried forever. The U.S. is not trying the men for human rights violations or mass murder, but is instead pursuing them strictly as drug criminals.

The complicated situation spurred two members of Columbia’s senate – opposition politician Piedad Cordoba and Uribe supporter Lara Restrepo – who were in Washington this week meeting with U.S. lawmakers and rights groups to ensure that the now 15 men are all held accountable for crimes against humanity.

Another crucial aspect of the delegation’s trip is to secure the information needed to flesh out Colombia’s history of atrocities so that there may be reconciliation, said Sanchez.

"It’s important that there is facilitation between the U.S. and Colombia and that the victims in Colombia have access to this information," she told IPS.

Sanchez said that the men likely had information about the paramilitary-politics scandal, the locations of mass graves, and the seizure of lands by paramilitary groups, but that information could be buried if the U.S. only focuses on drug charges.

But because the Obama administration has not set out a firm agenda on Colombia yet, there has been very little movement, and the delegation this week wasn’t able to garner much information.

"The visit raised more concerns than it answered questions," said Sanchez, who had been in contact with the delegation.

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