Colombia extradites warlords to U.S.

BOGOTA, Colombia &

Colombia extradited 14 paramilitary warlords to the United States today on charges related to drug trafficking, saying they violated the peace pact under which they demobilized.

Those extradited in the surprise pre-dawn operation were among the top leaders of Colombia's illegal right-wing militias &

including Salvatore Mancuso, who has commanded their umbrella group, Interior Minister Carlos Holguin said.

Colombian prosecutors blame the warlords for some of their nation's worst atrocities and they were extradited because "they were committing crimes and reorganizing criminal structures" from prison, Holguin told Caracol radio.

But it appears that the United States will not prosecute them for any human rights violations, although U.S. Drug Czar John Walters told the Associated Press that some of the drug charges involve violent acts.

Under a 2003 peace pact, the militia leaders were supposed to confess to all their crimes, surrender ill-gotten riches and halt illegal activities in exchange for reduced jail terms and protection from extradition.

Relatives of their victims complained today that shipping the warlords to the United States could make it more difficult to obtain confessions and secure reparations about atrocities, enabling the warlords' rich and powerful accomplices to evade justice.

Some 31 members of Colombia's 268-seat congress, almost all of them close allies of President Alvaro Uribe, are in jail for allegedly colluding with the paramilitary bosses. Another 30 are under investigation.

The warlords were flown to Miami in a U.S. government plane and some were being taken to Washington, D.C., New York and Houston, a senior Colombian police official told the AP. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information.

William Brownfield, U.S. ambassador to Colombia, promised to release more details this afternoon.

At least four are known to be wanted on drug-trafficking charges, including Diego Murillo (also known as "Don Berna") and Rodrigo Tovar, a military officer's son whose nom de guerre was Jorge 40.

Mancuso is accused in a 2002 U.S. indictment of shipping 17 tons (15.42 metric tons) of cocaine to the United States and Europe beginning in 1997 and killing a trafficker who owed him money. Murillo is accused in a 2004 indictment of shipping thousands of pounds (kilos) of cocaine to the United States.

Colombia also extradited paramilitary boss Carlos Mario Jimenez, known as Macaco, last week, accusing him of continuing to run his drug gangs from behind bars.

Victims fear that the militia bosses will negotiate reduced jail terms in the U.S. and evade responsibility for massacres and other crimes, said Ivan Cepeda, head of Colombia's main victims' rights group.

The paramilitaries killed at least 10,000 people, including dozens of labor activists, chief prosecutor Mario Iguaran has said.

The peace pact that enabled the demobilization of the warlords and more than 31,000 fighters required them to compensate their victims.

At least 160,000 people have registered as victims with the chief prosecutor, said Ana Teresa Bernal of Redepaz, an independent group that helps victims of Colombia's conflict.

So far, none have received reparations.

U.S. officials have said the U.S. judicial process can ensure that extradited Colombians provide information to prosecutors in their homeland, and that civil remedies could also be pursued.

But Claudia Lopez, an independent investigator who helped uncover the paramilitary-political scandal fears criminal cases against politicians will now end: "They've taken away all the witnesses," she said today.

The militias grew out of self-defense forces formed by wealthy ranchers in the 1980s to counter leftist rebel extortion and kidnapping. They seized much of the Caribbean coast in the late 1990s, killing thousands and stealing millions of acres of land while wresting control of lucrative drug-trafficking routes.

Warlords including Mancuso have implicated politicians and prominent businesses that benefited from their takeover.

"These are the principal paramilitary chiefs, no doubt, those who have valuable information and who acted with politicians, cattlemen and large landowners and clearly represented a danger for their accomplices," Cepeda said.

Mancuso, for example, told the AP in a prison interview that all banana exporters paid the militias three cents per crate. U.S.-based Chiquita Brands has acknowledged paying the paramilitaries, for which it was fined US$25 million by the U.S. Justice Department last year.

Mancuso's United Defense Forces of Colombia, the paramilitary umbrella organization, was declared a terrorist group in 2001 by the United States.


Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and Tatiana Guerrero contributed to this report.

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