The U.S. celebrated the extradition as a victory in their effort to dismantle drug trafficking. In reality, the only thing it is dismantling is victims’ right to the truth.
By Evan King
Fransisco Miguel Soto Lopez, a 54 year-old plantain seller from the department of Cordoba in northwestern Colombia, was on his way to the town’s central market when suddenly two armed men arrived on a motorcycle. The men were members of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), a right-wing paramilitary group that controls most of the northwestern region of Colombia. They were there to announce the beginning of an “armed strike” and forcibly ordered everyone to return to their homes. A few moments later, the sound of gunshots filled the air. One shot hit Francisco in the back, killing him instantly.
The Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia unleashed the so-called “armed strike” in retaliation for the extradition to the United States of one of its top commanders. The commander, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, known more commonly as Otoniel, was flown to the United States to face drug trafficking charges.
Paramilitary-Military Collaboration and U.S. Complicity
The AGC was founded between 2006 and 2007 by a former paramilitary leader who was eventually extradited to the United States more than a decade later. Colombia’s paramilitary forces were created by the Colombian military following recommendations made by U.S. military counterinsurgency advisers who were sent to Colombia during the Cold War to wage a decades-long “dirty war” against leftist political activists and rebel groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Despite Colombia’s disastrous human rights record, a U.S. Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) team worked with Colombian military officers on the 1991 intelligence reorganization that resulted in the creation of killer networks that identified and killed civilians suspected of supporting guerrillas. Eyewitnesses have linked these networks run by the Colombian military to the murders of at least fifty-seven people in and around the city of Barrancabermeja in 1992 and 1993.
Massacres committed by just one of the units that received U.S. military aid, the Palace Battalion, took the lives of at least 120 people since 1990, killings that remain largely unpunished. All told, at least twenty-four Colombian army units comprising a significant percentage of total troop strength have received U.S. weaponry ostensibly to fight drugs.
Indeed, U.S. arms grants and sales to Colombia not only continue unimpeded, but are expected to reach a record level. Colombia has received over $1 billion in arms sales since 2012. President Joe Biden recently designated Colombia as a “Major Non-NATO Ally”, which would allow for even greater military and intelligence cooperation.
A History of Impunity
The U.S. and Colombian governments celebrated the extradition as a victory in their effort to dismantle a notorious drug cartel that dominates major cocaine smuggling routes through the country. In reality, the only thing the U.S. extradition is dismantling is the right of Otoniel’s victims to access the truth. Many victims called for Otoniel to be allowed to be tried in Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), where Otoniel had confessed to having committed countless atrocities, many of them alongside prominent businessmen, politicians and the Colombian armed forces.
Otoniel will join at least 14 other top paramilitary leaders who have been whisked out of Colombia and into the United States. Among them, a man named Hernan Giraldo Serna, also known as the Drill because of his “rapacious appetite for underage girls”.
Otoniel will likely receive a relatively lenient sentence for someone responsible for hundreds of massacres, forced disappearances and the displacement of entire villages. Colombian paramilitary commanders extradited to the United States serve on average only seven and a half years in prison. 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.
The paramilitary leader may even receive a special dividend at the end of his prison term. Though wanted by the Colombian authorities, two other paramilitary commanders have won permission to stay in the United States, and their families have joined them.
Take the case of Salvatore Mancuso, who the government said “may well be one of the most prolific cocaine traffickers ever prosecuted in a United States District Court” and whom Colombian courts found responsible for the death or disappearance of more than 1,000 people. Under the terms of his plea agreement, he faced 30 years to life in prison. Due to his “extensive cooperation” a federal judge sentenced him to 15 years and 10 months. In the end, he will spend little more than 12 years behind bars in the United States
The United States government has spent billions of dollars supporting its Colombian military and political allies as they waged a campaign of state-sponsored terror against Black, Indigenous and Campesino communities across the country. For decades, the U.S.-trained Colombian security forces have worked hand in hand with ruthless paramilitary warlords like Otoniel. Now, the United States continues its shameful criminal complicity by covering up these crimes and denying thousands of victims their right to the truth.