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I am writing you regarding the Colombian paramilitary leaders who were extradited this week to the United States from Colombia. These criminal bosses, who face charges in the United States for illegal drug trafficking, are responsible for some of the most horrific atrocities and human rights abuses in Colombia’s recent history.

Human Rights Watch has been calling on the Colombian government for years to use the option of extradition effectively, and to send to the United States top level commanders who are not meeting their commitments under the “demobilization” process that is currently underway in Colombia. That these criminal bosses will finally face real justice is a very promising development. It means that they will no longer be able to control their nefarious organizations or to continue ordering criminal acts, or look forward to regaining their freedom in just a few years on extremely lax terms – which might well have happened had they stayed in Colombia.

At the same time, while we have long called for the extradition of these men, we do have concerns about the Colombian government’s motivations in doing so at this precise moment. President Uribe has said that he extradited these commanders because they were not meeting the terms of the Justice and Peace Law. In fact, during the initial period after they formally entered the “demobilization” process – some three years ago – when they were clearly refusing to meet their commitments, Uribe ignored calls for their extradition. The decision to extradite came only after some had actually started to cooperate, and others announced plans to do so, by beginning to talk to Colombian investigators about their links with Colombian military and government officials, including generals and politicians close to the president. Many Colombians suspect that Uribe sent these men now to the United States to stop them from naming more names. If this is true, the impact of the extradition is likely to be the opposite of what we all hope – instead of encouraging lower level commanders to cooperate with Colombian investigators, it will give them a powerful incentive to be silent.

The view that the extradition could potentially have a negative impact in Colombia is shared by many of the leading authorities on the country’s “demobilization” process. Colombia’s Inspector General and the President of the country’s National Commission on Reparations and Reconciliation have both stated that it could undermine the investigations already underway in Colombia into paramilitary atrocities. Similarly, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern “that the extraditions might weaken the possibilities for advancing, in a timely and effective manner, the fight against impunity for grave human rights violations.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has stated that the extradition “impedes the investigation and prosecution of such grave crimes” and “interferes with efforts to determine links between agents of the State and these paramilitary leaders.”

Given these concerns, we believe it is vital that the United States play its part in the investigation and prosecution of these men in a way that encourages them to continue revealing the full scope of their criminal activities, including any possible links with high-ranking Colombian officials. Toward that end, the Department of Justice should seek to create meaningful legal incentives for these mafia bosses to fully disclose information about their network of accomplices, including not only those involved directly in drug trafficking but also politicians, members of the military, financial backers and others who, over the course of decades, may have helped them to commit atrocities and to conduct drug trafficking operations with impunity. It is particularly important that they name any government officials who may have facilitated their criminal activity. (Of course, these legal incentives should not compromise the important principle that their punishment should be commensurate with their horrible crimes.)

We also believe that prosecutors should vigorously explore all possible avenues for holding the extradited paramilitary commanders accountable not only for their drug trafficking crimes but also their human rights abuses in Colombia. One possibility would be to prosecute them for acts of torture, which is a crime under federal law (18 USC section 2340A), prosecutable in the United States, even when committed abroad by foreign nationals. (Federal prosecutors are currently using this statute to prosecute Charles “Chuckie” Taylor, Jr., for acts of torture committed in Liberia.) Several of these commanders have admitted to ordering massacres in which scores of civilians were systematically tortured, often over the course of several days, before being slaughtered in front of their families.

In addition, we believe it is critically important that the US prosecutors handling these cases have the opportunity to fully familiarize themselves with the vast array of relevant evidence that Colombian police investigators, prosecutors, and judges have accumulated in recent years regarding paramilitary crimes.

Finally, we believe that US prosecutors should seek to collaborate actively with the efforts of Colombian justice officials who are investigating paramilitary networks in Colombia, by sharing relevant information wherever possible and granting them access to paramilitary leaders in US custody. It is particularly important that prosecutors receive clear instructions that the administration's commitment to a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia should in no way inhibit their own full, active, and timely cooperation with Colombian justice officials on these issues.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

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