BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia extradited 14 former paramilitary leaders to the United States on Tuesday to face drug-trafficking and other charges after authorities said the warlords violated terms of a peace deal with the government.
The extradition came as U.S. ally President Alvaro Uribe faces pressure over a growing scandal tying some of his lawmaker allies to the outlawed militias and U.S. Democrats resist a Colombia trade deal because of human rights concerns.
Violence has ebbed under Uribe, who has used billions in U.S. aid to weaken guerrillas engaged in Latin America’s oldest insurgency. But rebels and renegade paramilitaries are still fighting in remote areas, financed by the huge cocaine trade.
The 14 were escorted in handcuffs and body armor aboard a plane after early morning raids on their jail cells. Among them were some of the most feared militia bosses accused of killing thousands in the bloodier days of a four-decade conflict.
“This is a warning,” Uribe said in a national television address flanked by top military and law enforcement officials after the extradition. “This is notice that the law must be respected and terrorism defeated.”
Hours later local television showed U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents escorting cuffed men off the twin-engine aircraft at Opa-locka Airport in Miami. The militia bosses face a list of drug and money laundering charges in Florida, New York and Texas courts.
Originally organized by wealthy landowners to defend against the rebels, the far-right paramilitaries soon controlled large parts of Colombia. They massacred civilians, drove peasants from their land and smuggled cocaine in the name of counter-insurgency.
Militia leaders began surrendering under a 2003 deal with Uribe that gave them short jail terms in exchange for confessing to crimes and compensating victims. Uribe also suspended their U.S. extradition orders as part of the deal.
But rights activists and officials said the paramilitary leaders violated the accord by keeping criminal gangs active from their jail cells or by failing to cooperate with authorities to confess and hand over illicit gains to victims.
Uribe said U.S. officials agreed extradition would not impede investigations into crimes or payments to victims.
But families of paramilitary death squad victims, who were often shot, hacked up and dumped in shallow graves merely on suspicion of guerrilla ties, worried the mass extradition meant the warlords would never see real justice in Colombia.
“This extradition means there will be no historic truth or political truth here,” said victims group representative Luis Emil Sanabria. “We still need to know more about the ties between the political class and the paramilitaries.”
Popular for his security crackdown, Uribe touts the paramilitary surrender for helping curb violence and praises the deal as a cornerstone of his “Democratic Security” policy.
But he is under fire over a scandal ensnaring more than 60 legislators in a probe into paramilitary links. Many are allied to Uribe and around 30 are in jail awaiting trial on charges including using militia death squads to intimidate voters.
Uribe’s second cousin, Mario Uribe, was arrested in April on charges he conspired with paramilitaries.
Concerns over murders of labor union leaders, lingering paramilitary influence and emerging drug gangs tied to former militia bosses have fueled resistance among U.S. Democratic lawmakers to a bilateral free trade accord sought by Colombia.
The White House said it hoped Democratic leadership would take the measure as proof of Uribe’s commitment to tackling violence and called for a vote on the free trade accord.
“What this shows is the profound dedication to the rule of law that President Uribe has brought to Colombia,” White House drugs czar John Walters told Reuters by telephone.
Uribe says Colombia’s institutions are working better than ever after decades of corruption smeared the political class of the world’s top cocaine supplier. But critics say Congress is in crisis with so many lawmakers under investigation.
Colombia last week extradited its first top paramilitary boss, Carlos “Macaco” Jimenez, to the United States in what analysts said was a message from Uribe to Democrats that his government was serious about tackling paramilitary influence.
Additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra in Bogota, Adriana Garcia in Washington, Carlos Barria in Miami; Editing by Eric Walsh and Todd Eastham