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THE WORLD

Colombia offers extradition

A paramilitary leader accused of violating a peace deal risks being deported, maybe to U.S.

August 25, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Smarting from criticism that it gives demobilized militia leaders kid-glove treatment, the Colombian government announced Friday that it would make a major paramilitary figure available for extradition, possibly to the United States.

The government said that Carlos Mario Jimenez, alias "Macaco," had become the first paramilitary leader to be excluded from the peace process because he continued to direct drug-trafficking operations from his cell in Itagui prison near Medellin. "As the government has always said, these gentlemen are being watched," said Interior Minister Carlos Holguin at a news conference in Bogota, the capital. "They have promised not to return to crime, and the government is vigilant that they keep their word."

Jimenez led the largest and most powerful right-wing paramilitary militia, the so-called Central Bolivar Bloc, before he and his 5,000 troops laid down their arms under a 2003 demobilization agreement with the government.

Although he does not now face a U.S. extradition request, prosecutors in Colombia suspect Jimenez of mass murder, extortion and running a drug-trafficking operation stretching from Panama to the Putumayo jungle along the Ecuadorean border.

Like dozens of other paramilitary leaders, Jimenez surrendered to law enforcement and voluntarily entered custody after demobilizing, possibly as a hedge against stiff criminal charges and extradition in the future, analysts said. Unlike some others, Jimenez has still not been formally charged with paramilitary crimes by Colombian prosecutors.

In interviews, Jimenez stresses that he has not been charged with any atrocities and that he has a valid U.S. tourist visa and has visited many times. The U.S. Department of Justice told reporters Friday that there were no plans to seek his extradition.

Paramilitary armies were formed in the 1980s by farmers and businessmen to defend against left-wing guerrilla groups. But they morphed into criminal organizations that in some areas became more powerful than the Colombian state.

In a process strongly backed by President Alvaro Uribe, about 31,000 right-wing militia members demobilized. Thousands of them are being "reinserted" into society with jobs and other assistance programs, while others allegedly have returned to criminal life by joining new paramilitary armies.

Jimenez and other paramilitary leaders were promised relatively light jail sentences in exchange for their surrender, full confession of their crimes and abandonment of illegal activity.

But criticism has mounted steadily over the government's tolerance of militia bosses' criminal endeavors. Wiretaps leaked to reporters in May revealed that paramilitary leaders, including Jimenez, continued to use cellphones, the Internet and a steady stream of visitors to order killings and bribes and to direct drug- and arms-trafficking rings.

The Uribe government's action Friday comes as the U.S. Congress is to begin consideration of the next fiscal year's Plan Colombia aid package, which in past years has averaged $700 million. Critics of the aid, including many on Capitol Hill and human rights activists, have demanded that it be conditioned on a crackdown on paramilitary leaders and stricter observance of human and labor rights.

"He is under intense pressure and this may be a response," said Adam Isacson, researcher at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

Mauricio Romero, a political scientist at Bogota's University of the Rosary, said another motive of Uribe's could be to "create an atmosphere" more conducive to an agreement with leftist rebels to release dozens of kidnapped hostages, including three U.S. defense contractor employees and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. Uribe has come under increasing pressure to strike a humanitarian accord with guerrillas to effect the hostages' release. "Uribe is very strategic in how he approaches these things," Romero said.

Jimenez was transferred early Friday to maximum-security Combita prison closer to the capital. The government said it would "process" any extradition order that it might receive, presumably from the United States.

Uribe also announced that his government was transferring another former paramilitary leader, Diego Fernando Murillo, alias "Don Berna," to Combita as a security precaution. In contrast with Jimenez, Murillo is wanted on drug-trafficking charges in the U.S., which has requested his extradition.

chris.kraul@latimes.com

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