The International Human Rights Law Clinic is asking a federal judge in New York this week to allow the mother of a victim of a Colombian drug lord to speak at his upcoming sentencing on drug trafficking charges.
Associate Director Roxanna Altholz is asking the judge to recognize the mother’s rights under the 2004 Crime Victims Rights Act, which gives crime victims broad rights to intervene in criminal proceedings.
A Colombian court convicted Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, one of Colombia’s most powerful and violent drug lords and the leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), of kidnapping and murdering this mother’s son in Medellín, Colombia. Murillo’s troops targeted the victim after he refused to work with them.
Last year, he was extradited to the United States to face drug trafficking charges, before revealing information about his crimes in Colombia. He pleaded guilty last year to one count of conspiring to import tons of cocaine into the U.S. and distribute it. His sentencing is scheduled for March 9th.
The victim’s mother is appealing to federal court because she wants to know why Murillo’s troops kidnapped and murdered her son and to ensure that Murillo’s punishment reflects the seriousness of his crimes, Altholz said.
Drug Running, Human Rights Violations Linked
Although Murillo’s sentencing involves drug trafficking, not murder, his drug running and human rights violations were integrally linked, Altholz said. Murillo justified mass killings and forced displacements under the pretext of the war on Colombia’s left-wing guerrillas. Widely viewed to have inherited Pablo Escobar’s drug empire, Colombian authorities have seized more than $20 million worth of assets belonging to Murillo.
“Murillo used drug profits to pay for the killing of dozens of Medellín residents, including our client’s son,” said Altholz.
Once Murillo had control of the Medellín neighborhood where the victims lived, he began operating a drug lab from there. “It was a cycle,” says Altholz. “Violence was used to secure strategic locations in the drug trade, and then drug money was used to fund further violence.”
Students, Wilson Sonsini Help With Case
Altholz has been working on this case along with four students— Sarah Jaffe ’10, Elizabeth Mauldin ’09, Chris Raftery ’10, and Sarah Sexton ’10—who did fact-finding and investigation to support the motion. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati attorneys Leo Cunningham and Lee-Anne Mulholland ’06 joined Altholz as co-counsel.
“If it were not for Wilson Sonsini and my students, this would not have been possible,” she said.
The victim in this case is one casualty of Murillo’s violent drug trafficking conspiracy. He was a resident of Comuna 13, an impoverished neighborhood of Medellín and a strategic corridor for narcotics trafficking. This neighborhood was the site of at least 46 abductions and murders between summer 2002 and fall 2003. The victims were targeted because they refused to support Murillo’s illegal activities. Just before he was extradited, a Colombian court convicted Murillo and sentenced him to 26 years in prison.
Murillo was one of 15 paramilitary leaders extradited to the U.S. last May on drug trafficking charges. At least 6 of the 15 paramilitary leaders have negotiated plea agreements.
“The extradited paramilitary leaders are seeking agreements with the Department of Justice in order to lower their sentences,” said Altholz. “It is up to government prosecutors and courts to incentivize them to talk about the assassinations and disappearances committed in Colombia.”
With Murillo in a U.S. prison, the U.S. courts represent the best opportunity for this mother to obtain a measure of justice, she said.
At a hearing on Wednesday, Judge Richard Berman of the federal district court in Manhattan will hear arguments about whether Altholz’s client is a “crime victim” for the purposes of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. This 2004 federal law grants victims broad rights, including the right to confer with prosecutors about plea negotiations, the right to be heard at sentencing, and the right to full and timely restitution. Federal prosecutors and the defendant oppose the victim’s motion, arguing that the murder had nothing to do with the Murillo’s drug conspiracy.