BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia extradited 14 paramilitary warlords to the United States on Tuesday on charges related to drug trafficking, saying they violated the peace pact under which they demobilized.
Those extradited in the surprise pre-dawn operation comprise most of the top leaders of Colombia's illegal right-wing militias -- including Salvatore Mancuso, who has commanded their umbrella group, Interior Minister Carlos Holguin said.
Colombian prosecutors blame the warlords for some of their nation's worst atrocities. They were extradited because "they were committing crimes and reorganizing criminal structures" from prison, Holguin told Caracol radio.
Colombian president Alvaro Uribe said assets of the extradited warlords will be confiscated to pay victims.
There was no indication Tuesday that the United States will prosecute them for any human rights violations, although Colombian authorities say their investigations will continue and U.S. officials pledge cooperation.
Under a 2003 peace pact, the militia leaders were supposed to confess to all their crimes, surrender ill-gotten riches and halt illegal activities in exchange for reduced jail terms and protection from extradition.
"It's a great day," U.S. drug czar John Walters told The Associated Press. He said the warlords face, in the U.S. justice system, "institutions that are less likely for them to be able to attack or intimidate or corrupt."
Victims' relatives complained the extraditions could make it more difficult to obtain confessions and secure reparations about atrocities, in turn enabling the warlords' rich and powerful accomplices to evade justice.
Some 31 members of Colombia's 268-seat congress, almost all of them close allies of Uribe, are in jail for allegedly colluding with the paramilitary bosses. Another 30 are under investigation.
Police video showed the sober-looking warlords, some handcuffed and wearing bulletproof vests, arriving from prison in armored cars early Tuesday before they were put on a U.S. government plane to Miami.
They will be tried in Washington, Miami, Tampa, Fla., New York and Houston, a U.S. law enforcement official told the AP, most on charges of cocaine trafficking and money laundering. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official announcement had not yet been made.
At least four were previously wanted for extradition on drug-trafficking charges, including Diego Murillo (also known as "Don Berna") and Rodrigo Tovar, a military officer's son whose nom de guerre was Jorge 40.
Mancuso is accused in a 2002 U.S. indictment of shipping 17 tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe beginning in 1997 and killing a trafficker who owed him money. Murillo is accused in a 2004 indictment of shipping thousands of pounds of cocaine to the United States.
Last week, Colombia also extradited a paramilitary boss for the first time. Carlos Mario Jimenez, known as Macaco, was accused of continuing to run his drug gangs from behind bars.
Victims fear the militia bosses will negotiate reduced jail terms in the U.S. and evade responsibility for massacres and other crimes, said Ivan Cepeda, head of Colombia's main victims' rights group.
The paramilitaries killed at least 10,000 people, including dozens of labor activists, chief prosecutor Mario Iguaran has said, as they became de facto rulers of nearly the entire Caribbean coast.
The peace pact that enabled the demobilization of some 50 warlords and more than 31,000 fighters required them to compensate their victims.
At least 160,000 people have registered as victims with the chief prosecutor, said Ana Teresa Bernal of Redepaz, an independent group that helps victims of Colombia's conflict.
So far, none have received reparations.
U.S. officials have said they will ensure that extradited Colombians provide information to prosecutors from their homeland -- and that civil remedies can also be pursued.
But Claudia Lopez, an independent investigator who helped uncover the paramilitary-political scandal fears criminal cases against politicians will now end: "They've taken away all the witnesses," she said Tuesday.
The militias grew out of self-defense forces formed by wealthy ranchers in the 1980s to counter leftist rebel extortion and kidnapping. They seized much of the Caribbean coast in the late 1990s, killing thousands and stealing millions of acres of land while wresting control of lucrative drug-trafficking routes.
Warlords including Mancuso have implicated politicians and prominent businesses that benefited from their takeover.
"These are the principal paramilitary chiefs, no doubt, those who have valuable information and who acted with politicians, cattlemen and large landowners and clearly represented a danger for their accomplices," Cepeda said.
Mancuso, for example, told the AP in a prison interview that all banana exporters paid the militias three cents per crate. U.S.-based Chiquita Brands has acknowledged paying the paramilitaries, for which it was fined $25 million by the U.S. Justice Department last year.
Mancuso's United Defense Forces of Colombia, the paramilitary umbrella organization, was declared a terrorist group in 2001 by the United States.
Among politicians recently arrested for allegedly promoting paramilitaries is a second cousin and political intimate of the Colombian president, former Sen. Mario Uribe.
Walters, the U.S. drug czar praised President Uribe for his willingness to "investigate everything, wherever it leads even when there are allegations against a family member ...That's what rule of law means."