WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge ordered the CIA to release more records on its involvement in the killing of Pablo Escobar, and a Colombian death squad.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the CIA to prepare a Vaughn Index, identifying each document it claims is exempt from disclosure and explaining how declassification would hurt U.S. interests.
The Institute for Policy Studies sued the CIA nine years ago after the agency missed its deadline to respond to a June 1, 2004 Freedom of Information Act request. The Institute sought CIA records on Escobar’s death and the death squad Los Pepes, and the CIA returned only declassified foreign broadcast reports and heavily redacted records.
Los Pepes was a Spanish acronym for People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar. It was formed by former Escobar lieutenants who waged war against him until Escobar was killed.
The unredacted portions of the Pepes documents contain information about a U.S. Embassy Joint Task Force that worked with the Colombian Search Bloc that killed Escobar and a bodyguard in 1993.
Escobar made the fatal mistake of calling a radio talk show to argue with its host, and the CIA and its Colombian partners traced the call. Escobar was killed as he fled over apartment rooftops.
The Institute sued the CIA in 2006 after it did not respond to its appeal for nearly two years. Citing a “special activities” foreign intelligence exemption, the CIA deferred to other agencies, most of which have released documents, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Coast Guard and the Department of State.
In his Aug. 19 ruling, Judge Lamberth found the declarations released from CIA National Clandestine Service agents “insufficient.”
The CIA “has not even ‘searched’ files it claims are ‘operational,'” the Institute complained.
Department of Justice attorneys responded in an Aug. 19 “ Status Report ” that the Institute was asking it to do some hard stuff.
“Plaintiff also claims that defendant has never told it when the approximately 7,025 pages returned to CIA by DOD would be released; defendant has repeatedly told plaintiff that these documents were referred to other agencies. The CIA is currently in the process of determining the accuracy of the page count,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia wrote.
Lamberth is “unconvinced” by the CIA’s explanations. He wrote that its responses “strongly suggest() that the author or authors of the indices deliberately chose what terms of art to use in their document descriptions.”
“The court’s best guess, then, is that defendant means to say it recited the phrase ‘special activities’ the way a sullen seventh grader recites Hamlet’s soliloquy, i.e. without conviction, while furtively glancing at the glacial progress of a minute hand ticking away the time until lunch.”
He added: “It is true that no one line in the unredacted portions of the documents independently affirms the existence of declassified CIA special activities connected to Los Pepes or Escobar. Nevertheless, the evidence in the record supports the court’s conclusion that such activities did exist, were CIA-linked and have been declassified.”
Institute for Policy Studies fellow Paul Paz y Miño said he was pleased by the ruling.
“Judge Lambeth has ruled in our favor several times,” Paz y Miño told Courthouse New. “The CIA argues that they are exempt and they did not do an initial search there and he has now confirmed that they do need to search the directory of operations, or turn over … what documents they can about this specific operation of the CIA investigating connections between U.S. agencies and the Colombian Search Bloc and this death squad.
“The impetus behind the investigation was to find out how much U.S. policy was directly responsible for helping human rights violators. They not only killed his lawyers, they killed the 17-year-old son of one of his lawyers, they killed people that worked on his ranches; there were a lot of innocent victims.
“It wasn’t just a combatant situation, even though this was a military operation. There was a lot of collateral damage and huge human rights blowback to it.”
Paz y Miño said the Institute has received thousands of documents from agencies other than the CIA and is uploading them for public access.
“We’re now about to drop thousands of declassified documents from multiple agencies into the public discourse about a very serious time in the history of violence in Colombia, narcotrafficking and U.S. government connection or relation to Colombia,” Paz y Miño said.
The next status hearing on the Institute’s search for documents is set for Sept. 1.
The CIA referred a request for comment to the Department of Justice, which did not respond.
Paz y Miño said he plans to keep producers of the biopic “Mena” abreast of any new information he gets from the CIA documents. Mena, a film in which Tom Cruise plays a CIA agent working undercover as a drug trafficker for the Medellin Cartel, is in production in Colombia.
Escobar, who was killed on Dec. 2, 1993, the day after his 44th birthday, got his start by stealing tombstones from graveyards, chiseling off the names and reselling them. He was estimated to have $30 billion stashed around the world when he died. He was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, including a Colombian presidential candidate. Due to international pressure, mostly from the United States, he agreed to surrender to Colombia in 1991, to avoid extradition. He built his own prison in a valley he owned, staffed it with guards he owned, and built an escape tunnel with it. When he learned that Colombia might transfer him to a different prison, in 1992, he walked away.
His death made no difference in the worldwide cocaine traffic, other than to accelerate the splintering of cartels. Numerous books have been written about him. Perhaps the best description of the power he wielded in Colombia comes at the end of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s “News of a Kidnapping.”
As Escobar is flown in on his own helicopter to be booked into his own prison, dozens of his own guards – technically, Colombian guards – surround him at gunpoint. “Put your guns up,” Escobar said quietly, and they obeyed.
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