Reporters Committee and media coalition move to unseal prosecutions of Colombian paramilitary leaders

Hannah Bloch-Wehba | Secret Courts | News | April 7, 2015

A coalition of media organizations and journalists led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed petitions to unseal secretive criminal prosecutions of four Colombian paramilitary leaders who were extradited to the United States in 2008. CBS Broadcasting Inc., Sergio Gomez, a U.S.-based reporter for El Tiempo, Daniel Pacheco, a U.S. based reporter for Caracol and El Espectador, and Univision have joined the Reporters Committee in this effort.

All four defendants — Hernán Giraldo Serna, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Salvatore Mancuso, and Juan Carlos Sierra Ramirez — were leaders in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a notorious Colombian paramilitary organization that the Department of State designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2001. During Colombia’s decades-long internal conflict, the AUC had an estimated membership of 15,000 to 20,000 fighters and was reportedly financed, in large part, by its involvement in international cocaine trafficking. The AUC’s abuses — including kidnapping, rape, and murder — have been widely reported in the United States and Colombia.

Giraldo Serna, Tovar Pupo, Mancuso, and Sierra Ramirez were among thirteen AUC leaders extradited from Colombia in 2008 to face drug trafficking charges. All four are known to have been high-ranking paramilitary commanders. However, their criminal prosecutions in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia have been shrouded in secrecy.

Sierra Ramirez, for example, reportedly pleaded guilty in 2008, served only a five-year sentence, and received a green card for his cooperation with authorities. But his plea proceedings were sealed, and his sentence has never been made public. Similarly, Mancuso, a co-defendant in the same case, appears to have pleaded guilty and appears to be awaiting sentencing, but his plea proceedings were also held in closed court. The prosecutions of Tovar Pupo and Giraldo Serna, who are co-defendants in a separate proceeding, are even more secret; not even the dockets in their cases are publicly available. The reasons for this extreme level of secrecy are unclear.

The coalition argued that the broad secrecy in these cases violates the First Amendment and common law guarantees of a right of access to court documents and criminal proceedings. The petitions to unseal the documents and proceedings in these cases are an effort to vindicate that right of access and to support the interests of the press in reporting on the prosecutions of these defendants in U.S. courts.