WASHINGTON (CN) - Unable to discount rare personal testimony about a father who was tortured and murdered by a Colombian drug lord's goons, a federal judge doled out a hefty sentence to the ringleader Friday afternoon.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton sentenced paramilitary leader Hernan Giraldo Serna to 16 1/2 years in prison, which was 4 1/2 years more than his defense lawyer Robert A. Feitel had said was fair.
Although he was convicted of conspiring to import cocaine into the U.S., the widow and daughters of Julio Henriquez spoke instead about the harrowing details surrounding their family member's death, which they say Giraldo was responsible for.
The family asked Walton to give Giraldo life in prison, while the government recommended a 20-year sentence.
Giraldo's rightwing paramilitary men kidnapped, tortured and murdered Henriquez in 2001 in part of a broad swath of northern Colombia under their control. Hundreds of others – including leftists, farmers and indigenous leaders, and anyone believed to be a supporter of the leftist rebels – suffered similar fates at the hands of Giraldo’s henchmen.
Giraldo was among 14 former rightwing leaders of the feared United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) who were extradited to the U.S. in 2008 on drug trafficking charges. Around the same time, they had begun confessing human rights abuses as part of a peace process in their home country.
Critics of the extradition argue it thwarted Colombia’s efforts to seek justice for the hundreds of victims the AUC kidnapped, tortured and murdered.
Although Giraldo was the last of the extradited men to face sentencing, Friday’s hearing marked the first time any of the men had faced their victims in a U.S. courtroom.
Henriquez's widow, Zulma Henriquez, and her daughters Bella and Nadiezdha, spoke for nearly two hours, recounting intimate details of their lives before Henriquez's death and the anguish they have suffered since.
Before the hearing started, their attorney, Roxanna Altholz, approached the women where they sat at the front of the courtroom. She hugged each of them, kissing their cheeks.
The women’s testimony painted a grim picture of the violence Giraldo's drug empire inflicted on the northern part of Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains – violence that they say still plagues that part of the country.
Giraldo, dressed in a navy blue jumpsuit with a long-sleeved white shirt underneath, avoided looking directly at the women during their testimony.
Bella, a biologist, said the family did not know what happened to her father when he disappeared. Two masked men dragged him out of a meeting with farmers and threw him into a white van, never to be seen again.
Back then, the phenomenon of forced disappearances was still unknown in the country, and the family spent years searching for Henriquez, Bella said.
They recovered his remains in 2007.
"Many other families are still looking for their loves ones," she said through a court interpreter.
"We need to know the truth, we need to know why they did it," she added.
Although she did not look at Giraldo, Bella’s mother Zulma spoke directly to him during her testimony.
"Be honest, how many deaths are you responsible for?" she challenged him through a translator.