SEMANA, October 19, 2019


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Relations between Colombia’s Supreme Court of Justice and the United States Justice Department have short-circuited. As part of the legal case against ex-president Uribe, letters with terms like “disrespect” are coming and going between Bogotá and Washington.

On August 14, when Justice César Reyes Medina set the date for ex-President Álvaro Uribe’s investigative appearance, he also ordered some thirty sworn testimonies and evidentiary statements that included hearing several paramilitaries who had been extradited to the United States. The Justice also requested a series of official pieces of information kept in the gringo legal system. Two months later, more than 90 percent of the necessary steps in Colombia had been taken. By contrast, none of the steps that required collaboration by Washington had been taken.

Behind the frustrated procedure for trying to connect ex-paramilitaries like Salvatore Mancuso or Juan Carlos “el Tuso” Sierra by videoconference from the United States there was an unexpected tension. A series of letters exchanged between the Investigative Branch of the Supreme Court, of which Justice Reyes is a member, and the United States Justice Department reflects it.

The Colombian Court had asked the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons for records of the visits by Diego Cadena, the ex-President’s lawyer, to certain United States prisons. The request seeks to determine whether Cadena arranged those entries to the prisons with the support of any official (diplomatic, consular, or any other) and whether any official accompanied the lawyer on his visits.  In particular, Justice Reyes sought to determine the conditions under which Cadena interviewed Juan Carlos “el Tuso” Sierra, Salvatore Mancuso, Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano (alias Don Berna), Ramón Quintero Sanclemente (alias RQ), and Diego Pérez Henao (alias Diego Rastrojo).

Attorney Cadena faces a number of investigations by the Attorney General’s Office in Bogotá, for possible charges of criminal impersonation and procedural fraud. As is generally known, this lawyer went around the prisons in Colombia and the United States to contact ex-paramilitaries, some of whom sent letters and testimonies favorable to Uribe to the Colombian Court. The Court decided to open an investigation of Uribe when it found some serious indications that there had been bribes and deception behind those versions. Because of that, for Justice Reyes, Investigator in the case, it was key to investigate how Cadena obtained those versions and to interrogate some of the ex-paramilitaries who had been called as witnesses by the Uribe defense.

But the Justice Department’s first reaction was not receptive to Reyes’ requests. They asked him to justify the appropriateness and relevance of the testimony he had requested. Furthermore, they asked him to explain the reason why he thought that letters sent by Mancuso, Sierra, and the other men who had been extradited “spoke of Uribe” or “why he thought that (Diego) Cadena had been involved in the preparation of those letters”.

Uribe’s defense solicited the testimony of the former paramilitary commanders in order to strengthen his version of the visit that Senators Piedad Córdoba and Iván Cepeda made in 2009. That meeting, according to letters written by the former paramilitaries and sent to the court, were for the purpose of offering them protection for their families—including sending them to Switzerland—so that in exchange they would give information about Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

In Tuso’s case, he stated that he had also received legal offers in the same terms from a journalist who allegedly spoke as an emissary from the then-Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre and also from Justice José Luis Barceló. That Justice terminated the investigation against Cepeda for manipulation of witnesses and ordered the opening of one against ex-President Uribe.

Justice Reyes considered the explanations requested by the United States to be “improper, considering that legal cooperation is merely a formal procedure and does not permit digging into the legal issues of another country”. Even so, the Court answered the questions, but the answer didn’t satisfy the United States authorities either.

Once more the U.S. Department of Justice turned to requiring that Colombia, in writing, provide additional details on the connection between the evidence being sought and the case in question. Justice Reyes sent a new letter last September 27. It was drafted in tough language that made clear his irritation: “With this second interrogation your requests are being disrespectful, as the Supreme Court of Justice has complied with the legal parameters provided and agreed upon, and has formulated a civil petition for legal assistance, and there is no reason to go into argumentation regarding the relevance and appropriateness of the evidence that it considers to be necessary.”

The letter concludes by saying that the Court “will not agree to the requests for additions that are not appropriately formulated by the Department of Justice of the United States”, and it reminds the representatives of the gringo legal system that it “is their job to deal with the petition for legal assistance in a timely manner that is clear, respectful and legally formulated”. The letter right now is at the Justice Ministry for translation and mailing.

While the matter is being resolved, the Court contacted Tuso Sierra directly. He is at liberty in Florida under witness protection, but he refused to testify. The Court at one time did manage to schedule a teleconference with Mancuso, as he is taking part in a special Peace and Justice Program.  But for unknown reasons he did not leave his cell to make a statement. And in the case of Don Mario, it is really uncertain whether it will be possible to question him. Because of the short circuit with the North American legal system the deadlines set by Justice Reyes have now passed and it has not been possible to reschedule them.

Recently, the Court was able to proceed without any setbacks to take the testimony of the extradited former Director of Anti-Corruption, Gustavo Moreno. He provided testimony by videoconference in the prosecution of former Justice Gustavo Malo in the scandal of the “cartel de la toga”, or a scheme of judicial corruption. On the other hand, the testimony of Marion Marín, the nephew of Iván Márquez, is waiting to be heard.  He is a DEA-protected witness in the continuing case against Jesús Santrich in a New York Court. That investigation has not taken place yet because the decision not to prosecute Marín has not been signed in Colombia, and not because the United States has opposed it.

So the insistence on demanding explanations in the Uribe case generates some serious concerns. What is the interest of the Department of Justice in investigating the relevance of the witness statements? Why is the United States worried about the relation between Diego Cadena and the preparation of the letters? Why are they asking if these letters mention ex-President Uribe or not?

This recent clash is added to a series of events indicating that relations between the two legal agencies are breaking down. The statute regulating procedures of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish) and its subsequent revision in the Constitutional Court modified the system of extradition by creating restrictions covering sending ex-combatants who were contributing to the peace process. The discrepancies with these modifications were the focus of two of President Duque’s six objections to the statute. He considered certain provisions undesirable, but his objections were defeated in the Senate.

While this battle was going on, two Justices of the Constitutional Court, Antonio José Lizarazo and Diana Fajardo, temporarily lost their visas, and the United States rescinded the support it has been providing to modernize the Court. This debate arose during Jesús Santrich’s extradition case. He is wanted in the United States for drug trafficking. That country’s government publicly lamented the fact that the Supreme Court of Justice had set him free. In fact, that imbroglio was the excuse for Néstor Humberto Martínez, a well-known ally of the North Americans in the struggle against crime, to decide to leave the Attorney General’s Office.

Curiously, in this debate about the extradition of Santrich, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish) tried without success to get Washington to furnish evidence beyond what was in the indictment, hoping to determine whether Santrich did or did not commit crimes after the date of the signing of the Peace Agreement. In spite of that,  Washington never did send the evidence. And the controversy focused on whether this petition from Colombia was an inappropriate interference by its judicial system into Uncle Sam’s legal business. Now it’s the reverse. The Justices of the Investigative Branch of the Supreme Court of Justice, where the case against ex-President Uribe is being investigated, have exactly the same worry.

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