Court Cuts Journos Off in Quest for Drug Lord Data

     WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge says she is done unsealing documents sought by reporters regarding the prosecution of two Colombian drug lords and paramilitary commanders.
     The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press led an April motion that asked the U.S. District Court to disclose “all filings, orders, and other entries related to the criminal prosecutions of” Colombian drug kingpins Salvatore Mancuso-Gomez and Juan Carlos Sierra Ramirez.
     In 2008 the U.S. extradited Mancuso-Gomez and Sierra Ramirez, along with a dozen other leaders of Colombia’s largest paramilitary group – Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self Defense Forces of Columbia) – to face drug-trafficking charges.
     Over a 30-year period, the group “massacred, forcibly disappeared, tortured, and raped thousands of civilians,” according to a 2010 report by the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of California Berkeley. The United States estimates the group was responsible for some 70 percent of these crimes.
     Mancuso-Gomez and Ramirez joined the government in seeking to keep the documents secret, but the court ordered them to justify that position.
     In May, the court unsealed all of the case filings “except for the government’s sentencing memorandum and motion … and defendant’s memorandum in aid of sentencing and motion.”
     The Reporters Committee, along with CBS Broadcasting Inc., Univision and two Colombian reporters – Sergio Gomez and Daniel Pacheco – in turn asked the court to identify the remaining sealed documents, and justify their continued secrecy.
     U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in June ordered the government and Mancuso-Gomez and Ramirez to submit proposed redactions for the documents that were to remain under seal.
     On Wednesday, the court approved public disclosure of the redacted documents but ruled that the remaining sealed documents would remain that way, and remain unidentified.
     “The public’s right of access to criminal proceedings and judicial records is a presumption, not a guarantee,” the six-page opinion states.
     “The court finds that disclosure of this information will put the safety of several individuals, including law enforcement officials and defendants and their families at risk,” Huvelle wrote.
     A footnote in the Sept. 9 memorandum opinion notes that “even the identification of the filings implicate the overriding compelling interests of the defendant.”
     Katie Townsend, the litigation director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, acknowledged the unsealing of many of the documents, but said the organization was disappointed by the ruling, and troubled by Huvelle’s refusal to even identify the sealed documents.
     “The level of secrecy surrounding these cases for years and years is really striking,” Townsend said.
     Part of the impetus to get the records unsealed stemmed from journalists contacting the organization with concerns about the sealed dockets and lack of information about the sentencing of the drug lords, she added.
     Audiences of Colombian news organizations “have a really powerful interest in knowing what happens to these individuals, and knowing how they’re going to be prosecuted,” said Townsend.
     In June the Department of Justice sentenced Mancuso-Gomez to more than 15 years in prison.
     According to the 2010 report by the International Human Rights Clinic, Mancuso-Gomez “confessed to 477 crimes involving 881victims, including murders, forced disappearances, forced recruitment of minors and forced displacements.”
     He was also responsible for shipping 100,000 kilograms of cocaine to the U.S. and elsewhere, the Department of Justice said.
     The remaining sealed documents might contain important information about “the level of cooperation that U.S. government secured from these individuals over the past decades,” and its extradition relationship with Colombia, Townsend said.
     “How lenient or not lenient their sentences are going to be because of their cooperation is something the U.S. public has an interest in,” Townsend added.
     The U.S. Attorney General’s office has not returned a request for comment.
     Meanwhile, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said it has had success in getting other court records unsealed for prosecuted Colombian drug lords.
     “We’re evaluating with the other news organizations and reporters how we want to proceed,” Townsend said, “and whether we’re going to appeal.”

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