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.
Henriquez’s oldest daughter Nadiezdha has a master’s degree in human rights. She told Walton she has helped search for some of those who went missing in Colombia under the paramilitary’s reign.
“I have accompanied families of the disappeared who go looking for their loved ones,” she said.
According to Nadiezdha’s testimony, Giraldo’s family is still in control in northern Colombia, and the paramilitary still strikes fear in the residents there.
Justice has not been delivered yet, she said.
“My father taught me not to be afraid,” she testified. “He taught me to fight for justice, for dignity.”
Her father intended to transform their farm into an environmental reserve, but now, Giraldo’s men use it to grow cocaine, she said.
Giraldo has not asked for forgiveness for his crimes, according to Nadiezdha.
“We know he had children with girls who were under 14 because he raped them,” she said. “He has not asked for forgiveness for that either.”
She took a moment to compose herself.
“I will not cry here – I don’t want him to see me cry,” she said. “He doesn’t deserve that. I have already cried enough.”
Nadiezdha told Walton they want what all victims want – reparations and for the truth be known.
A Colombian court sentenced Giraldo in absentia to 37 years in prison for Henriquez’s death, but the family fears that he will escape that punishment when he returns to Colombia after he serves his sentence in the U.S.
However, Giraldo’s attorney, Robert Feitel, said his client will serve at least eight years of that sentence when he goes home.
He urged Walton not to use his courtroom to try to solve the systemic problems that plague Colombia.
Then he pleaded on his client’s behalf, highlighting the difficulty of Giraldo’s confinement in a Virginia prison.
“The conditions are onerous for Mr. Giraldo,” Feitel said of his 68-year-old client. He suffers from health problems, does not speak English and has not been outside for a very long time, Feitel added.
In an attempt to downplay the family’s testimony, Feitel contended that Walton and other judges who have presided over cases involving the AUC have had similar information presented to them about underlying crimes, but not in the form of live testimony.
Most of what the family had said could be chalked up to rumor, loss and sadness, he said – a normal response from those still grieving.
As he spoke, Nadiezdha used a makeup-stained tissue to wipe her eyes.
Feitel also urged Walton to consider Giraldo’s cooperation with the U.S. government, suggesting that a harsh sentence could undermine the biggest trade commodity between the U.S. and Colombia – inmates.
But Walton said he could not set the power of the testimony aside.
Noting that sentencing never gets easier, particularly when victims testify, he commended the women for their courage to appear in the courtroom and make their statements.
Walton also spoke at length about the lives he had seen destroyed by drug trafficking.
He acknowledged Giraldo’s cooperation with the government and said he must consider the question of disparity as it relates to sentences for similar crimes.
But he added that people brought to justice in this country must understand there is a price to pay.
“I think a message does have to be sent,” he said.
After the hearing, Altholz said she did not think the sentence was proportional to Giraldo’s crimes, but she noted that her clients’ testimony did influence it.
“I think our clients helped the judge understand the violence that was a key component of the drug trade,” she said.
The government could have done more to help Walton understand that violence, in which case the sentence might have been harsher.
“The judge got as close to the government’s recommendations as I’ve seen him get in these cases. And I think the difference was made by our clients’ participation,” she said.