As Colombia prepares to release 160 paramilitaries that have served just eight-year sentences under a demobilization agreement with the government, controversy is building about even earlier releases for paramilitaries and drug traffickers that have cooperated with the United States government.
In recent months, the Colombian Prosecutor General's office has whittled down a list of 400 members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) scheduled for release from prison to 160 after purging those suspected of crimes not covered in their demobilization agreement, reported RCN Radio.
The AUC was the umbrella organization for various paramilitary groups, which fought and killed guerrillas and suspected sympathizers for a decade, while building one of the largest drug trafficking organizations in the world.
SEE ALSO: AUC Profile
Among those to make the cut are some of the AUC's most notorious figures, including one of the founders of the modern paramilitary movement, Ramon Isaza, alias "El Viejo," and the former commander of the Elmer Cardenas bloc, Freddy Rendon Herrera, alias "El Aleman."
However, the Supreme Court has begun handing down so-called "macro-convictions," which are designed to punish the heads of illegal groups for crimes against humanity committed by individuals under their command. Isaza was one of the first to face such charges, and others slated for release may follow.
Meanwhile, in the United States, other former AUC commanders and some of their convicted drug trafficking allies are also obtaining early releases.
A report by El Colombiano highlights how US authorities have released a string of extradited paramilitaries and drug traffickers. After becoming informants for US law enforcement, some of the captured capos served sentences as short as five years and have been allowed to keep part of their illegal wealth and avoid deportation to Colombia to face further charges.
InSight Crime Analysis
The thorny issue of transitional justice has been a ticking time bomb since the much criticized Justice and Peace process established what many considered overly lenient sentences for demobilizing members of the AUC.
There have clearly been some attempts to limit the fallout from the mass release of some of Colombia's worst human rights abusers by weeding out those who have failed to meet the terms of the agreement or used the AUC as a façade for criminal operations. However, the process was flawed from the start and this will not be enough to prevent controversy and accusations of impunity for an organization that collaborated with the Colombian state at the highest levels.
While in the case of the AUC the Colombian government can argue that leniency was the benefit paramilitaries received for demobilizing, the United States has no such excuse.
Pablo Escobar's old adage of "better a grave in Colombia than a cell in the United States," no longer holds sway with modern criminals and cutting a deal with the US authorities is increasingly seen as the easiest way to avoid heavy sentences and retain criminal wealth.
While frustration with this is building in Colombia, it is unlikely to affect extradition processes for the time being, as this would cause considerable tensions with Colombia's close allies and financial backers to the north.