'The Worst War Criminals in the Western Hemisphere'

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
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A police officer stands guard during a government land restitution  process. Farmers were displaced under pressure and threats from former  paramilitary commander Rodrigo Tovar Pupo. (Photo: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images)

A police officer stands guard during a government land restitution process. Farmers were displaced under pressure and threats from former paramilitary commander Rodrigo Tovar Pupo. (Photo: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images)

Murray Carpenter reports on the Colombian paramilitary leaders accused of brutal human rights violations who will not face justice—or their victims' families—until they've served sentences for American drug charges.

Carpenter's Pacific Standard story is currently available on newsstands and to subscribers and will be posted online on Tuesday, March 15. Until then, an excerpt:

When Rodrigo Tovar Pupo appeared last November for his sentencing in Judge Reggie Walton's courtroom in a United States District Court a few blocks from Capitol Hill, he looked small in his oversized orange prison coveralls and rubber clogs. Bald, with a full graying beard and glasses, his appearance belied his reputation as one of Colombia's most feared paramilitary commanders: Jorge 40, as he was known, had allegedly planned hundreds of killings in Colombia and trafficked many tons of cocaine to fund his operations.

In 2008, Tovar and 13 other paramilitary leaders were extradited to face drug charges in American courts. Tovar and his colleagues have spent the last seven years out of the public eye, as their legal cases chugged quietly along. In fact, for five years his case and several others were entirely hidden from the American public, effectively sealed by Walton. Facing mounting legal and public pressure, he unsealed the case in April.

Tovar had joined the right-wing paramilitaries to fight against leftist guerrillas. By 2003, he commanded 5,000 troops in the Northern Bloc contingent of the main paramilitary group, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. Like the guerillas, the paramilitaries funded their operations through drug trafficking, one of the most profitable enterprises in the country. From 2002 to 2005, each go-fast boat carrying cocaine away from the Caribbean coast, near Santa Marta, paid Tovar a "tax" of $25,000 per 2,000-pound shipment.

To understand his reign of terror, consider just one massacre. In February 2000, hundreds of his troops gathered in the small town of El Salado, in the steamy lowlands of northern Colombia, drinking liquor and playing drums as they brutally raped, tortured, and executed the villagers. Colombian journalists referred to the ritual as the "blood party" and "the paramilitary death dance." They cut off a man's ear, held up pieces of another man's brain, impaled a woman's vagina with a stick, and assigned execution lottery numbers. When the killing was done, at least 38 people were dead (the actual toll may have been far higher). It was all part of a campaign to instill fear in locals suspected of collaborating with leftist guerrillas.

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