WASHINGTON -- An obscure Colombian judge has delivered a stunning decision that will threaten U.S. relations with its best ally in South America unless reversed. On July 19 in Cali, Judge Oscar Hurtado turned over to the military courts an Army colonel and 14 officers and men under his command accused of slaughtering 10 anti-narcotics policemen earlier this year. That points to acquittal by the Colombian band of brothers.
Hurtado's ruling shatters President Alvaro Uribe's intent, expressed to U.S. officials during his visit to Washington last month, to bring to justice through civilian courts Col. Bayron Carvajal, leader of the troops who killed the police officers. When I reported from Colombia late last month, Attorney General Mario Iguaran assured me he would prosecute the accused military in civilian courts as doing the bidding of narcotics interests.
Scant word of this remarkable development has reached Capitol Hill in the slow flow of news from Bogota to Washington, limiting the early impact. It is an ominous sign that U.S. aid has not broken the sinister Colombian link between the military, the judiciary and drug dealers. If the prosecution is vigorously pursued against him, Col. Carvajal has signaled he will expose complicity by his superior officers. All this is a boon to left-wing congressmen led by Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who campaign against the U.S.-financed Plan Colombia battling narco-terrorism.
On May 22, troops of the 3rd Brigade's Mountain Battalion, commanded by Carvajal, killed 10 U.S.-trained Colombian National Police (CNP) officers and a civilian informant at Jamundi, about 29 miles southwest of Bogota. On his visit to Washington June 14, President Uribe told me he had "led the decision" to transfer jurisdiction over the case from military courts, where the conviction rate is 4 percent, to civilian judges. "When we have cases like this one," he said, "I need to proceed with all severity. I have said to them [the military] we need to accept the policy."
In Bogota the next week, CNP officers told me the 3rd Brigade, headquartered in Cali, was notorious for its drug connections. Carvajal was noted for a high life that is not commensurate with a colonel's pay. When I interviewed Attorney General Iguaran in his heavily guarded office in downtown Bogota, he stressed civilian control over the case. Iguaran, a civil servant who is independent of the executive branch, told me he has evidence linking the officers with the drug cartel.
Carvajal and his colleagues were scheduled for routine arraignment in Cali June 19 with the colonel and his family present. Judge Hurtado announced that "ordinary justice" in Colombia was not competent to handle this kind of case. He consequently bound the case over to the military courts, and then ordained that his verdict could not be appealed. Officers of the Mountain Battalion present in the courtroom stood up cheering.
It was subsequently revealed that Hurtado himself had been sentenced to prison in a money laundering case under appeal, raising suspicions of an old-style Colombian deal. Under pressure, the judge reversed himself by saying his transfer of jurisdiction could be appealed. It comes before a military tribunal this week, with nobody sure of the outcome. This is the argument for extraditing accused Colombians to the United States for adjudication here.
Carvajal's defense is based on a "line of duty" argument that the Mountain Battalion was following orders from above. A private e-mail by a CNP general last week said the colonel "wants to involve others and not take the culpability on his own. He is very close to many Army generals who are in a power position." He called Carvajal "a very smart guy who has much information about things that power people want kept quiet." That puts the judicial tribunal under pressure to suppress the case.
If it is suppressed, the consequences will not be pleasant. United States congressmen going to Bogota for Uribe's second inauguration Aug. 7 will give him an earful. The pending U.S.-Colombian free-trade agreement may be dealt a deathblow. McGovern and his allies in Congress will ignore Uribe's monumental efforts and renew their campaign for reductions in military aid, which would be disastrous for Colombia.