Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Secret History of Colombia’s Paramilitaries and the U.S. War on Drugs

NYTimes |  Once the paramilitary Colombians — several dozen, all told — have completed their American prison terms, they will have served on average seven and a half years, The Times found. The leaders extradited en masse will have served an average of 10 years, at most, for drug conspiracies that involved tons of cocaine.

By comparison, federal inmates convicted of crack cocaine trafficking — mostly street-level dealers who sold less than an ounce — serve on average just over 12 years in prison.

What’s more, for some, there is a special dividend at the end of their incarceration. Though wanted by the Colombian authorities, two have won permission to stay in the United States, and their families have joined them. Three more are seeking the same haven, and still others are expected to follow suit.

“In the days of Pablo Escobar, they used to say they preferred a tomb in Colombia to a prison in the United States,” said Alirio Uribe Muñoz, a member of the Colombian Congress. “But maybe now extradition is a good deal.”

For 52 years, with abundant American support, the Colombian government has been locked in a ferocious armed conflict with leftist insurgents. Though it initially empowered paramilitary forces as military proxies, the government withdrew official sanction decades later, long after landowners and cartels had co-opted them. Before their demobilization in the mid-2000s, the militiamen came to rival the guerrillas as drug traffickers and outdo them as human rights abusers.

Now, eight years after the paramilitaries were extradited, Colombia has reached a peace deal with their mortal enemies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC). Facing an Oct. 2 vote on the accord, the country is in the midst of a polarizing debate about crime and punishment for the FARC, informed by what went wrong during the paramilitary peace process. Nobody is advocating that justice be abdicated to the United States this time.

But the paramilitary chapter of the country’s history is not closed, and remains “totally full of blanks,” said María Teresa Ronderos, the author of “Recycled Wars,” a Spanish-language history of Colombian paramilitarism. “Nobody knows what happened to those guys.”

For years, the Justice Department shrouded the militiamen’s cases in secrecy, not only sealing sensitive documents but also hiding basic information and sometimes even erasing defendants like Mr. Giraldo from the public docket.