Politics & Policy

Minimum Justice for All?

The Uribe paradox.

So you think Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur and all around go-to aide, Salim Hamdan, got a light sentence — from a military tribunal, no less? Many jurists and analysts have observed that Hamdan’s five-and-a-half-year sentence (with credit for time served, meaning he’ll only be locked up six months more) was unconscionably low, and that it sent precisely the wrong signal regarding Washington’s commitment to waging the War on Terror.

But consider this: A few days ago, in a regional gathering of senior officials representing 25 Latin American and Caribbean countries, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe urged American courts to respect Colombia’s minimum-sentencing regulations when it comes to narco-traffickers expedited from Colombia at Washington’s request. Uribe noted that his country’s Justice and Peace law mandated a minimum five years’ imprisonment for minor drug thugs who cooperated with authorities, and that his northern neighbor should impose significantly greater sentences when dealing with major, non-cooperating malefactors.

Under the current extradition agreement, U.S. courts cannot dole out more punishment than their Colombian counterparts would have, but there is no limit on how little punishment a Colombian drug trafficker who’s broken U.S. law may receive. U.S. sentences of some major drug leaders have reached 20 years and more, but President Uribe noted that others, following plea bargains, have been “a joke.” He said that rather than pay for their crimes, many criminals had been free to leave prison and “live like a king” after serving short terms.

In response, American ambassador William Brownfield quickly announced that the U.S. “government will not seek extradition of any person if the American law does not permit a minimum of ‘x’ years,” and that “we must decide in this bilateral dialogue what number this ‘x’ should be.”

According to the U.S. embassy, since 1997, Colombia has extradited some 750 drug criminals for trial in the United States. In May alone, 14 leaders of the country’s paramilitary gangs, all major narco-traffickers, were shipped north, and in July the Colombian supreme court voted to extradite still another senior “para” chief, Ever Veloza.

Uribe’s comments marked a paradoxical moment for Washington’s long-vaunted War on Drugs. They took place in the presence of five other Latin American presidents (Felipe Calderon, Mexico; Alvaro Colom, Guatemala; Leonel Fernandez, Dominican Republic; Elias Saca, El Salvador; Martin Torrijos, Panama), plus senior ministers from throughout the region, who had convened to coordinate and strengthen anti-drug efforts.

Uribe hosted the discussion, and his message was not lost. While most attendees committed themselves to additional enforcement programs, corridor comment — much of it critical — centered on what Washington was or was not doing to counter the threat posed by the narcotics trade.

Colombia, of course, has anti-narcotics efforts beyond sending its criminals to the U.S. For example, the military recently reported on coca-plant-eradication efforts in an area close to the Venezuelan border, Colombia’s horrific heartland of coca cultivation. According to Gen. Paulino Coronado, in the first seven months of 2008, an estimated 85 percent of coca plantings — 600 hectares — have been eliminated. Much of this coca grew on large plots that until recently were under guerrilla control.

Also, Uribe has undertaken to redouble Colombia’s efforts to curb the easy access that visitors to Cartagena, the country’s leading resort community, have to narcotics.

And with help from Plan Colombia, the massive U.S. aid program, Colombia has developed vocational training programs for demobilized guerrillas and paramilitary cadres, at the same time as the military and police have received substantial training and development support. Plan Colombia, in combination with Bogota’s Justice and Peace law, which gives willingly demobilized fighters an opportunity to seek partial clemency, have resulted in a steady drain on the anti-government forces — averaging more than 300 defectors a month.

The FARC organization alone has imploded from an estimated 25,000 members to 7,000 in the last five years. Among some 3,000 guerrilla and paramilitary prisoners in Colombian jails, nearly 1,000 have joined “Manos Por la Paz,” a spontaneous prisoner effort launched in July 2007, in which inmates pledge their readiness to stay in jail rather than rejoin their violent groups as part of a prisoner exchange.

The fact is that Colombia has been a staunch ally, relentlessly fighting and progressively defeating an enemy dedicated to both drugs and terror. The United States can do no less than hold up its end of the bargain, whether renewing the enormously successful Plan Colombia, ratifying the pending free-trade agreement, or sentencing Colombian criminals.

Those in Congress who have so far demurred in extending Plan Colombia are effectively aiding and abetting sworn enemies of freedom and democracy. Moreover, congressional failure to approve the carefully crafted U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement would send a clear message to Colombians, friend and foe alike: America is an unreliable ally. Meanwhile, hardened paramilitary dons receiving light sentences will soon return to their former ways, resulting in a resurgent cocaine supply.

– John R. Thomson is a geopolitical analyst specializing in the developing world. A former war correspondent and diplomat, he welcomes comments to Thomson.john.r@gmail.com.

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