Is the Obama DOJ Still Coddling Colombian Terrorists?

ProPublica had an important story a few days ago reporting that the cases of a number of Colombian paramilitaries extradited to the US on drug–not terrorism–charges have been sealed and largely disappeared.

Since 2006, more than a dozen of Colombia’s most notorious paramilitary leaders have been extradited to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges in federal district court in Washington.

The extraditions stunned Colombians, who had hoped that testimony from the men, given as part of a national amnesty program, would help expose the truth about two decades of vicious murders, assaults and kidnappings. In videotaped confessions in Colombia, one had taken responsibility for more than 450 slayings.

But outrage over the extraditions reached a boiling point earlier this year, when U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton blocked public access to seven of the paramilitary leaders’ cases, erasing virtually every trace of their existence.

There is no way to know if the men have negotiated lenient sentences — or if they are even still in custody. An eighth defendant, accused in Colombia of murdering a judge, was released on his own recognizance, records show, after cousins in College Park, Md., vouched for him.

The story is important on its face–for what it reveals about judicial secrecy–but also because of our unique relationship with Colombia and its right wing terrorists.

If I’m not mistaken the accused in these cases are members of the AUC (the story says the accused in these cases are members of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia; the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia–the AUC–is usually translated as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), a terrorist group that has been on the State Department’s list of official terrorist organizations since 2001. If that’s right, in addition to being alleged drug traffickers, these accused are also terrorists.

Yet the ProPublica story doesn’t use the word “terrorist” once.

It doesn’t consider whether, rather than being sealed to protect an ongoing investigation of drug trafficking, they might be sealed because of national security claims connected to the accused’s role as terrorists.

Most charitably, the cases might be sealed because these accused drug traffickers are helping the government find other terrorists. But I don’t buy that.

Consider, first, the alleged ties between supporters of Colombia’s right wing government–our close allies in Latin America–and right wing paramilitaries. The ties were first revealed as far back as 2007.

The comments came amid mounting evidence of collusion between many of Mr Uribe’s allies and paramilitaries, who committed some of the most gruesome massacres in Colombia’s recent history while trafficking tonnes of cocaine to Europe and the United States. They are listed by the US state department as terrorists.

Colombia’s supreme court has ordered the arrest of 14 members of congress on suspicion of collaboration, of whom 13 back Mr Uribe. The president’s former intelligence chief is also facing charges of passing information to the paramilitaries to help them target and kill opponents.

Mr Uribe has not been directly implicated but the revelations are an embarrassment for the US president, George Bush, who considers the Colombian conservative his best friend in a region dominated by leftwing governments. Democrats have threatened to block a trade deal with Colombia and to reduce the annual $700m (£350m) flow of mostly military aid to Bogota.

And arrests of those who collaborated with the right wing terrorists continue even today.

Colombian Sen. Javier Caceres, a former president of Congress, was arrested Tuesday for alleged links to right-wing paramilitary groups.The country’s Supreme Court of Justice issued the arrest warrant.

According to local reports, Caceres was allegedly involved with the paramilitary chief Uber Banquez, known as “Juancho Dique.”

Banquez claims that Caceres asked him for money to finance his campaign.

As the ProPublica story notes, extraditing these drug-trafficking terrorists means they will not give public testimony in Colombia that had been a key promise of the amnesty program that purportedly demobilized the AUC.

In Colombia, the secret U.S. prosecutions have darkened hopes of achieving redress for thousands of atrocities tied to a network of paramilitary groups known as the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. The extradition of key leaders to the United States disrupted a historic amnesty program intended to demobilize units and deliver basic information, such as the location of bodies, to victims’ relatives.

Not only does this prevent victims’ families from learning what happen to their loved ones, but it limits further embarrassing revelations of ties between politicians and paramilitaries. Extraditing these men and then hiding their cases makes it very hard to show that the US government is working closely with those who–if they were Arab and Muslim–would be indefinitely detained in Gitmo or shot down with a drone.

And then there’s the unique approach DOJ has of prosecuting AUC-related crimes. Most notably, there’s the case of Chiquita, which knowingly paid off the AUC for years after the State Department made such payments a crime (and allegedly carried AUC’s coke on its freighters). But, with the assistance of now Attorney General Eric Holder (and former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh), the Republican Chiquita execs who had materially supported terrorism got off with no charges. Before DOJ let those executives off with no charges for their material support of terrorists, the highly connected Roderick Hills alleged that DOJ–specifically, Michael Chertoff–suggested DOJ might tolerate ongoing payments to AUC.

Mr. Hills’s advice was that the company should tell American officials about the payments. Over the years, several corporations had successfully used the strategy of self-disclosure to avoid punishment.

According to a criminal complaint filed by the Justice Department, Mr. Hills and another Chiquita official were told at the April 2003 meeting that the payments were illegal and could not continue. The complaint also noted that the company’s outside law firm had strongly recommended in February 2003 that the payments end immediately.

In the version offered by Chiquita officials, Mr. Chertoff was more equivocal at the meeting, a view contained in letters from defense lawyers to the Justice Department, according to the sources familiar with the court filings. Mr. Chertoff said he understood the sensitivity of the situation and would get back to the Chiquita officials, which he apparently did not do before going on to become a federal judge.

Mr. Chertoff, who has declined to comment, will almost certainly be called to testify if the matter goes to trial.

Defense lawyers said the company engaged in regular discussions with Justice Department officials about using the payments as an opportunity to provide intelligence to the government about the A.U.C. Those discussions, the lawyers contend, were crucial in convincing the company that the American government was prepared to tolerate the continuation of the payments. [my emphasis]

Click through for a reminder of the search warrants that didn’t get executed and the personnel changes that resulted in those soft-pedaling the investigation getting promotions.

The implication, at the time, was that Chiquita would help the government do–whatever–and not faces the same stiff prison sentences for materially supporting terrorism that brown people would. And voila! After that allegation surfaced publicly, our current Attorney General managed to help his clients avoid charges.

Now, as ProPublica notes, sealing cases like this must be signed off at the highest levels of DOJ.

An agreement involving secrecy would require authorization at the highest levels of the Justice Department. Prosecutors must obtain approval from the deputy attorney general before requesting, or agreeing to, the sealing of a criminal case.

You know–the DAG? The guy who reports directly to the guy who represented the Chiquita execs?

Perhaps I’m being overly paranoid here. But the wholesale sealing of cases relating to AUC–effectively burying the details of both the alleged drug crimes and the terrorism–sure seems like it has more to do with global politics than it does with prosecuting more drug lords.

  1. bobschacht says:

    Thanks for this, EW!
    Is this another case of Obama continuing Bush policies, or is there some new trickery going on here?

    One question: before the last block quote, you wrote:

    Now, as ProPublica notes, sealing an cases like this…

    “an” = “in”?

    Bob in AZ

    • emptywheel says:

      Ah, thanks for the correction.

      It’s an escalation of the Bush plan.

      Bush closed off amnesty testimony with extradition. But by sealing these cases, it makes it a lot easier for activists to make a stink out of it.

      It’s funny. Lamberth is quoted in some detail in the ProPublica piece. Yet he was the guy who got so pissed at the Horn case, which feels a lot like this, only smaller scale.

    • phred says:

      Thanks for the link! What do you bet that Uribe plans to stay in the U.S. for awhile? Sounds like he might find himself in trouble if he goes back to Colombia any time soon.

      By the way, what is it with prestigious universities and their inclination to harbor war criminals? Funny how Ward Churchill had his tenure threatened just for being opinionated, yet people responsible for the death and torture of hundreds to thousands of people (e.g., Condi, Yoo, and Uribe) are happily ensconced and protected by their respective universities. Something tells me it has little to do with either free speech or academic freedom.

        • phred says:

          Not sure I want to know what Yoo and Uribe had to wear ; )

          Edit: Although I hear bmaz could give ’em some pointers ; )

      • Mason says:

        By the way, what is it with prestigious universities and their inclination to harbor war criminals? Funny how Ward Churchill had his tenure threatened just for being opinionated, yet people responsible for the death and torture of hundreds to thousands of people (e.g., Condi, Yoo, and Uribe) are happily ensconced and protected by their respective universities. Something tells me it has little to do with either free speech or academic freedom.

        Every once in awhile we get a mini peek at the horrific and degenerate policies and acts committed by the creepy crawlies infesting our government and the MIC. That any so-called institution of higher learning would let any of the sociopaths and psychopaths who established, promoted, and facilitated war crimes and crimes against humanity step foot on campus is disgusting and reprehensible. That it would employ, compensate, tenure, protect, and defend them stirs something primal and deep within me.

        I call it the Rage that knows no bounds.

  2. Mary says:

    Great piece! A few of the comments in the Pro Publica piece show that people following the topic were thinking along the same lines as you.

    One thing that is interesting is to compare the treatment of FARC members extradited to the US and their pretty public trials and handling, v. AUC.

    Another good point is that, as with Canada re: our torture of suspects blocking extradition; Columbian courts are beginning to block extradition to the US specifically because of the failure of the US to live up to its promises that the AUC members would be made available to participate in the Justice and Peace process.

    [lack of promised US cooperation resulting in courts acting to bar extraditions]

    Uribe – like Obamaco – doesn’t think courts should have the right to interfere with his divine power to decide who can be disappeared away from retribution or not. As with his brother in ideology Obama, Uribe thinks that his executive direction of public policy and international relations trumps justice. Ninth Circuit – meet Uribe. Uribe – meet Ninth Circuit.

    Given the context, the second link is dark farce. Uribe argues that the Columbian political murders aren’t a big deal bc, after all, the real “crimes against humanity” are the US drug charges.

    In any event, part of the US reaction to the blocked extraditions was supposedly a plan to keep all the extradited men in two prisons and make them available to the Columbina Peace and Justice process. SO if those promises were “for real” then what does that do to the supposed “necessary” secrecy with the sealed docs here?

    [Note, btw, in this piece that the then US Ambassador to Columbia is calling for an amendment to the US/Columbian extradition treaty to prevent Columbian courts from having any say – gObama!]

    Meanwhile, as the new Ambassador gets sworn in

    given the former Ambassador cutting side deals on access to US bases and arguing for the disenfranchising of the Columbian courts, Ambassador McKinley seemed to feel it was incumbent on him to say he respects “Columbia’s sovereignty and the country’s democratic institutions.”

    I can’t imagine why he thought Columbians might need reassurance on that point.

    • emptywheel says:

      Oh, and as you suggested, it’s not irrelevant that Obama is pushing for more superduper powers in Colombia, and may need some of these senators w/ties to AUC to vote for it now that unilateral declaration of those powers has been deemed illegal.

  3. phred says:

    To paraphrase Orwell, in the Global War on Terror, some terrorists are more equal than others.

    This is just another manifestation of our two-tiered “justice” system. If you are politically well-connected, the law does not apply to you. If you are not politically well-connected, the law does not protect you.

    That’s pretty simple, isn’t it? And to mix my popular culture quotes (if not metaphors)… In an oligarchy, no one can hear you scream.

  4. Mason says:

    I don’t suppose there is any possibility that any AUC personnel were trained at the legendary School of the Americas in Georgia to kidnap, torture, and murder suspected leftists and slaughter entire villages of campesinos.

    Our government did that throughout the 80s to train Nicaraguan Contras and right wing paramilitary death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador.

    I wonder how many suspected left wing sympathizers and impoverished campesinos in Central and South America have been slaughtered by people that our government trained and equipped?







    Yup, no doubt about it. They hate us for our freedoms.

    • emptywheel says:

      Oh, thanks for reminding me! I prematurely hit “publish” on this, and I had wanted to include this at the end of the post:

      The UN just released a report on America’s insufficient control over its contractors. And one of the things they included was a request for a response (finally) on Jose Posada Carriles:

      The Working Group also took this opportunity to remind State Department officials of pending communications, including its long-standing communication dated 11 June 2007 regarding the case of Luis Posada Carriles, allegedly involved in mercenary activities in the Americas in the 1980s and residing in the United States (see A/HRC/7/7/add.1, paras. 84-87). The Working Group invites the Government to demonstrate its full cooperation with the mandate given to the Working Group by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council by responding to all pending communications.

      hahahaha! They want us to do something about Posada!

      • Mason says:

        hahahaha! They want us to do something about Posada!

        Yeah, good luck with that. If they haven’t received White House Form BOBS-1, they will soon.

        Dear _______________,

        Thank you for expressing your concern. As you know, although I am a fierce advocate for human rights and I will not rest until the last threat to our freedom has been extinguished and all Americans can live in peace, I am absolutely committed to looking forward and not backward. Unfortunately, as you also know, there are many terrorists throughout the world who hate our freedoms and threaten our security. We cannot kill all of them at once. We must and we will persevere. I promise you that and yes, you can take it to the bank.

        Speaking of banks, I enclose a personally autographed photo of me signing the Health Care Reform Bill and a special engraved donation form for my reelection effort. Slaughtering terrorists to bring peace to the world is hard work, expensive work, and it’s going to take a long time. I need your help to make you safe. Please give and please give generously because our freedoms depend on it.

        Thank you for your interest and continuing support.

        With wormest regards,

        Barack Obama,
        President of the United States

        WHFORM: Barak Obama Bull Shit — 1

        (Spelling error supplied)

  5. Nell says:

    allegedly involved in mercenary activities in the Americas in the 1980s is pretty mild language.

    Posada Carriles is responsible for, among other illegal acts, the in-flight explosion of a civilian Cuban plane in 1976 that killed 73 people, and a series of bombings in public places in Cuba.

    • gvandergrift says:

      Cubana Airlines flight 455 exploded in flight on October 6, 1976, killing all 73 aboard. Among the 73 were 24 members of Cuba’s national fencing team, several of whom were teenagers. On September 18, 1976, less than 3 weeks before, former Chilean ambassador to the US, defense minister, and foreign minister Orlando Letelier was assassinated by car bomb in Washington, D.C. His American associate, Ronni Moffet was also killed. In 1976, George HW Bush was Director, CIA.

  6. bmaz says:

    Contrast the Chiquita case treatment Marcy speaks of with what the DOJ is doing to Pete Seda, who ran the Oregon affiliate of al-Haramain. Guess Seda should have hired Eric Holder as his lawyer. Or paid off Rod and Carla Hills.

  7. JasonLeopold says:

    On the topic of US/Colombia relations, Dept of State just released this, FYI:

    Determination and Certification of the Colombian Government and Armed Forces with Respect to Human Rights Related Conditions

    On September 9, 2010, the Department of State determined and certified to Congress that the Colombian Government and Armed Forces are meeting statutory criteria related to human rights. This determination and certification, which is pursuant to Section 7046(b) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2010, permits the full balance of FY 2010 funds for the Colombian Armed Forces to be obligated. Though there continues to be a need for improvement, the Colombian government has taken positive steps to improve respect for human rights in the country. Firm direction by the government that extrajudicial killings will not be tolerated has led to a rapid reversal in this disturbing trend. The Santos Administration has taken significant steps to demonstrate that it takes human rights seriously, which includes establishing a roundtable on labor, meeting with NGOs and civil society groups and committing to increasing engagement with these groups, and reaching out to Colombia’s courts to repair relations with the judicial system.

    Despite years of improvements to Colombia’s justice system, impunity remains a concern. The Prosecutor General’s Office needs to improve its structure and its responsiveness in resolving cases, and to overcome the personnel challenges resulting from the implementation of a constitutionally mandated entrance exam. Swift selection of a Prosecutor General is also vital to making headway on combating impunity. Investigations into extrajudicial killings continue to proceed, albeit slowly, and there are concerns that human rights cases are not being transferred from the military to civilian judicial system as often as they should. Alleged illegal wiretapping and surveillance by Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security (DAS) are unacceptable. It is vital that the Prosecutor General’s Office conduct a rigorous, thorough, and independent investigation to determine the extent of these abuses and hold all perpetrators accountable. Threats by criminal groups against human rights defenders (HRDs) and civil society in Colombia are also deeply troubling. The Colombian government’s condemnation of these threats and new legislation to increase penalties are welcome steps. We will continue to encourage increased government attention to this issue, and to underscore the importance of timely and serious investigations into these threats.

    The United States government remains committed to continued engagement with the Colombian government to improve the human rights performance of the Colombian Armed Forces, and respect for human rights throughout the country. We look forward to working with the Santos administration to build on the constructive commitments it has made and to identify ways to make further progress on areas of concern. Throughout this process, we will continue to engage with Colombian and international human rights groups, as well as civil society. We appreciate the commitment of these groups and applaud their often dangerous work.

    • emptywheel says:

      Oh, that’s rich! Not only are they complaining about impunity, when the US gov is giving the most impunity available. But they’re complaining about illegal wiretapping?


    • Mason says:

      Throughout this process, we will continue to engage with Colombian and international human rights groups, as well as civil society. We appreciate the commitment of these groups and applaud their often dangerous work.

      You gotta love our government’s enthusiasm and hypocrisy.

      Anyone else having trouble sleeping because of violent bloody dreams with tops of heads missing and vacant staring eyes without eyelids?

  8. Nell says:

    Throughout this process, we will continue to engage with Colombian and international human rights groups, as well as civil society. We appreciate the commitment of these groups and applaud their often dangerous work.

    Sure, if by “engage with” they mean “deny visas to” and “smear as terrorists”. That decision was reversed, but only after a month of protests from every press association, and with no apologies whatsoever.