Washington’s Faltering Anti-Drug Strategy in Colombia

4-14-06, 8:00 am

For over 25 years, Washington has enlisted the support of Colombia as its most important relationship in the increasingly bloody and costly anti-drug war being waged in Latin America. A key arm of that struggle has been the U.S.’ policy of extradition, a policy which Washington repeatedly has insisted is the foundation of the Colombian phase of its anti-drug strategy. Under the Justice and Peace Law (JPL), which Colombian president Álvaro Uribe pushed through in June of 2005, right-wing paramilitary groups, such as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), have carried out a demobilization process which can only be described as an utter phony. Those groups, which were among the most active in the drug trade, for the most part remain equally active today even after they have been nominally sanitized by Uribe’s demobilization process. The putative demobilization process has done nothing to deconstruct the setup of the paramilitary organizations. As such, the question of whether Washington will aggressively pursue extradition, or allow the policy to fall into desuetude, looms large. Backing away from its drug strategy would condone an inherently flawed peace process, and inevitably sabotage the central marrow of this nation’s counter-narcotics policy. By permitting the Uribe administration to offer assurances of immunity to Colombia’s most consistent human rights violators and among its most active drug trafficking sectors, without in return ensuring the destruction of existing trafficking networks, may be one of the explanations of why the outgoing conservative Chairman of the House International Relations Committee has expressed so much skepticism over the U.S. anti-drug strategy. Thus, it is crucial that the relative success or failure of demobilization be reexamined by the U.S. Congress before any action is taken on the pending $700 million anti-drug aid measure there, which is bound to produce very little bang for the buck.

Guarantees of Nothing

Washington’s support for the JPL and Uribe is based around a set of guarantees which are flagrantly naïve at best. The Bush administration has bought into Uribe’s claim that the demobilization will prove effective in returning stability to his country, and has permitted him to promise near impunity to the paramilitaries in exchange for their supposed renunciation of violence.

Given the country’s long history of internecine violence, President Uribe’s desire to take concrete steps towards ending the bloodshed is of course understandable. Unfortunately, the chosen mechanism – the Justice and Peace Law – is unlikely to fulfill either of the goals that its name suggests. Human rights agencies around the world have heavily criticized the demobilization plan for being too lenient, to the point of permitting paramilitary and rebel leaders involved in major drug trafficking and human rights offenses to avoid extradition by making token promises in confessing their crimes while bearing almost trivial consequences. It is plain to see that many participants will continue to dissemble in regards to the earnestness behind their decision to demobilize, in order to be protected against extradition and benefit from the $180 per month stipend issued to those who comply with its regulations.

Moreover, under Uribe’s measure, the maximum sentence a violator can receive is eight years – even for those responsible for the most heinous of human rights crimes. Paramilitary members who ‘confess’ their crimes can receive as little as 22 months imprisonment, and it is universally seen that the average para who demobilizes is not likely to get any hard jail time. Moreover, a criminal sentence requires that the assailants be convicted, and considering Colombia’s history of judicial inefficiency and its openness to intimidation (which is why extradition was introduced in the first place), even this step is uncertain. Not surprisingly, no guilty verdicts have been handed out to date. The greatest catch is that the paramilitaries who demobilize under the JPL framework are likely to be the most heinous offenders, the leaders of the groups, whose decision is driven by the fact that by choosing to disarm under the JPL framework, they will be granted immunity from both U.S. extradition requests, as well as prosecution by the International Criminal Court. In other words, Uribe has established an operatic setting where those guilty of monstrous crimes will be allowed to take a walk and the U.S. is buying into the hoax. Equally troubling are the programs designed to reintegrate paramilitaries into society, which include plans to reward demobilized felons by hiring them as police auxiliaries and to other public posts, despite the horrendous human rights violations of which these fascist vigilante groups have been guilty.

This structural impunity that they are being granted is compounded by criticisms that the Uribe demobilization plan will in no way enforce the actual dissolution of paramilitary and drug trafficking organizations, and that the framework being provided will permit demobilized AUC leaders to maintain their illicit drug, extortion and crime networks, while being able to preserve their ill-gotten riches. For these reasons, there have been numerous instances where AUC members who have demobilized were then allowed to carry on their history of unremitting violence, as demonstrated by the six murders carried out by the Bloque Occidente paramilitary group on February 13, 2006, despite the fact that it had officially demobilized in September 2005.

A Retreat from Reason It appears that a full-scale policy transition is underway regarding Washington’s attitude towards its Colombian anti-drug strategy, whereby Washington is willing to cast aside the historic pillars of its war against drugs in exchange for sanctioning an unquestionably illusory peace process that offers no guarantees that trafficking of narcotics will cease, nor that the killing of innocent civilians will end. It is entirely fueled by a desire to maintain amiable relations with President Uribe, Washington’s only remaining staunch ally in South America. As long as Colombia proves valuable to Washington, the hoax will be allowed to go on and additional billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Bogotá will be added to the over four billion in U.S. Plan Colombia assistance funds which has already been allocated to that country.

Officially, Washington still offers up lip service to extradition, continuing to issue requests for Colombians who have been indicted in the U.S. to be extradited in order to stand trial, including those who have demobilized under the provisions of the JPL. But this scenario totally clashes with the reality that in supporting Uribe, the U.S. is permitting him to offer the paramilitaries ironclad assurances that if they sign up there will be immunity from foreign prosecution, assurances which the Colombian president is hardly likely to rupture and which undoubtedly will transform U.S. extradition requests into vulgar jokes. This way, Washington will be able to express a backing for the overall peace process, while stressing the importance of a regional ally which has been in recent years the third largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world. By carrying on this charade, the White House will be allowed to say that it is doing the right thing when, in fact, it is betraying its commitment to the American people.

Currently, the U.S. seems to maintain the fiction of being interested in pursuing the extradition of paramilitary leaders, but a Center for International Policy report notes that, most likely, extradition requests would eventually be phased out if the current demobilization program is executed. This outcome undoubtedly would further weaken the prospects for justice and peace in Colombia. A number of concerned groups have recommended that the U.S. remain firm in its requests for the extradition of paramilitary leaders – yet the most likely beneficiaries of the JPL’s offer of impunity – and Washington’s acquiescence to it – will be the AUC and those associated with it. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that a valid peace is a function of the degree to which extradition is pursued, at least when it comes to leftist 'terrorists.' Washington’s recent requests for the extradition of 50 FARC members, issued in a U.S. report which accused the group of maintaining one of the principle cocaine rings in the world, comes about because that leftist group remains completely unwilling to negotiate. Washington, which historically has considered both the FARC and the AUC as terrorist organizations, will have no trouble in continuing to demand that FARC-indicted traffickers be extradited but the AUC can be treated with muted selective indignation. If abandoning extradition erodes any prospect for justice, it also thoroughly undermines any bona-fide anti-narcotics efforts. The stratagem concocted by Uribe and sanctioned by the U.S. to arrange for the withdrawal of AUC forces from combat, means casting one’s eyes away from the massive drug trafficking engaged in by the paramilitaries, both before and after demobilization. Indeed, Colombian authorities always have acknowledged that the FARC’s involvement in the drug trade is relatively epidermal compared to that of the AUC. It can be maintained that Washington’s insistence that the extradition of FARC officials continues unabated, provides even more evidence of the de facto ties between Washington and the Colombian right, and indicates a diminished commitment on Washington’s behalf to peace and the battle against drug trafficking. Indeed, perhaps Washington would be justified in phasing out extradition altogether if it would be shown to be in the best interests of both Colombia and the United States. But the current ex parte method now being pursued guarantees neither peace nor any reduction in the drug trade, signifying that with the JPL, U.S. policymakers have knowingly bought into a sham strategy.

Washington’s Questionable Decision to Sign off on Failure

In recent statements, Washington’s repeatedly obtrusive ambassador to Bogotá, William Wood, has insisted that he did not 'want to talk about what the law does not include.' While acknowledging that the Justice and Peace Law is far from perfect, Wood insists that 'The law can contribute if it is implemented well.' Considering the mounting evidence to the contrary, this is simply another example of the diplomatic nonsense that Wood is prone to favor. Nor has the ambassador – who is turning into one of those U.S. diplomats corps whose arrogance and irrelevance have helped fuel the 'pink tide' of leftist governments now assuming paramountcy in South America today – had anything to say about how easily the U.S. had adjusted to the termination of the policy of extradition which previously had been the centerpiece of the Colombian phase of its anti-drug crusade.

The Bush administration was prepared to take even additional steps of deference to mark its retreat from its anti-drug strategy in Colombia. Recently, the extremely activist U.S. embassy in Colombia issued a statement proclaiming that U.S. companies will be allowed to employ former members of paramilitary and guerrilla groups, reflecting that there will be no U.S. criminal restrictions against employing demobilized members of such groups. Since only a handful of leftist forces are likely to take advantage of the demobilization program, while thousands of rightwingers are, the de facto result is that this is just one more piece of evidence that the U.S. and Uribe are, to the point of distortion, buying into the AUC side of the equation and creating a habitat for them to handsomely thrive. On February 7, Uribe announced that he would recruit 15,000-20,000 demobilized fighters as police auxiliaries. Almost immediately, U.S. Ambassador Wood stated that the U.S. will back the efforts of the Colombian government to reintegrate former fighters into society, disregarding entirely the enormous import of the social, psychological, and moral complications resulting from this 180 degree policy reversal, and itsinsensitivity to the massive scale of the terrorism practiced every day throughout Colombia by the rightwing vigilantes.

Why Extradition Matters

Flaws in the JPL are compounded by the fact that the disappearance of the extradition option ensures that there will be no credible threat of prosecution that will be used to deal with demobilized paramilitaries who continue with their nefarious drug trafficking practices. While extradition has been an incredibly tricky subject, it offers one of the few possibilities that Colombian drug traffickers and those denominated as being 'terrorists' by the U.S. – which in the past included the rightwing AUC, as well as the leftist FARC – will be effectively prosecuted abroad, because of the likelihood that Colombian courts won’t touch them out of fear and intimidation.

It is universally known that the Colombian judicial system is notoriously vulnerable to venality, bribery, death threats and is plagued by a lack of transparency. Over the years, there have been an estimated 350 killings of members of the judiciary and high criminal justice officials in the government by the narcotics cartels, rightwing vigilantes, as well as some by leftist guerrillas. Even when arrests and trials successfully have occurred, real justice has proven elusive. After the late notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar eventually surrendered, his punishment for a time consisted solely of imprisonment in his own mansion. The underpaid and overburdened judiciary is unwilling, or understandably unable, to readily prosecute the highly visible on drug trafficking charges, let alone the highly politicized human rights violations now receiving international attention.

Furthermore, extradition historically has been a key component in the U.S.’ drug war, and the current decision to allow the policy to slip towards oblivion in favor of a flawed peace is curious, if not entirely scandalous. The first steps towards arrangement, whereby U.S. authorities are permitted to petition Colombia for the extradition of one of its nationals accused of certain crimes, such as drug trafficking involving the U.S., were taken on September 14, 1979, when the then Colombian ambassador to the U.S., Virgilio Barco, signed the bilateral extradition treaty, which the Colombian Congress ratified, by its Act 27, a year later. Washington did not issue official extradition requests, however, until April 1984, after the Colombian Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, was killed by a Colombian cartel. In December 1986, the extradition relationship was temporarily suspended when Colombia’s Supreme Court of Justice declared that Act 27 was in violation of the National Constitution, and a new constitution enacted in 1991, prohibited the extradition of Colombian nationals. This hiatus lasted until December 1997, when the Colombian congress passed the Extradition Reform Act, which reauthorized the possible extradition of convicted Colombian nationals to the United States.

This tortuous tug-of-war for jurisdiction over the prosecution of major cartel figures – a particularly sensitive issue due to its implications for Colombian sovereignty – has failed to produce a truly effective treaty governing extradition procedures. The U.S. has continued to issue requests for the extradition of Colombian felons, yet its success rate leaves something to be desired. Of particular interest to the U.S. are a number of pug-ugly paramilitaries, including Salvatore Mancuso, who is charged with the 1997 El Aro massacre and Hernán Giraldo Serna, who is wanted for arranging the murder of two DEA agents.

Recent extradition efforts have come to the cliff’s edge with Uribe’s Justice and Peace measure. As part of the legislation’s attempt to create a legal framework for the demobilization of the paramilitaries, all convicts who fulfill relatively mild terms and pay modest retributions, are guaranteed against being sent abroad to face justice – whether it is to the International Criminal Court or a U.S. tribunal – an option which the Uribe government has heretofore been hesitant to take off the table, although it has wielded, with intermittent success, the threat of extradition to induce the rightwing insurgents to enter into peace negotiations.

The government’s position is not unfounded. Indeed, recent Colombian history suggests that even if the alternative may be distasteful, extradition doesn’t necessarily promote peace or justice either. Between 1989 and 1991, Colombia experienced a wave of violence and kidnappings carried out by 'Los Extraditables,' a group of drug capos led by Pablo Escobar, who sought to ensure their own immunity from extradition by bringing on new levels of violence to those in anyway associated with giving their okay to the extradition process. Over the years, that crisis saw 15,000 killed in 1,414 separate acts of terror, according to the National Police of Colombia.

Navigating the Minefield

Despite the mountainous defects of Uribe’s JPL, Washington will continue to support Bogotá’s ‘peace’ negotiations with the country’s combatants. Colombia is perhaps Washington’s most consistent political ally in the region, as well as possibly one of Latin America’s stronger economies, although heavily favoring the rich. As much as the U.S. would like to see drug or 'terrorism'-related paramilitary and guerrilla leaders tried and convicted in U.S. courtrooms, Washington is prepared, for the moment at least, to put extradition on the backburner in order to respond to Colombian realities by pursuing other diplomatic and economic desiderata with Bogotá. As one of Washington’s strongest allies, Colombia holds a special diplomatic position in a region that is increasingly wary of U.S. intervention. But considering that over 90 percent of U.S. narcotics come from Colombia, any slacking on anti-drug enforcement may not be worth political solidarity with a crime ridden country surrounded by states whose national interests are increasingly inimical to those of the United States.

From Council on Hemispheric Affairs