The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, CBS Broadcasting, Univision, and two U.S.-based Colombian journalists, Daniel Pacheco and Sergio Gomez, successfully secured the unsealing of court documents from the criminal prosecutions of four leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary organization that the U.S. Department of State designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2001. The AUC’s violent operations are responsible for large-scale drug trafficking and human rights abuses, including rape, kidnapping and murder, that have taken thousands of civilian lives.
The unsealed records — which include docket sheets and other court documents — shed light on the U.S. government’s prosecution of Salvatore Mancuso Gomez, Juan Carlos Sierra Ramirez, Hernan Giraldo Serna and Rodrigo Tovar Pupo following their 2008 extradition from Colombia to face drug charges in the U.S. Nearly all of the proceedings were closed to the public, and the majority of the court filings in their cases were sealed.
In two applications filed in D.C. District Court in April 2015 to unseal the documents, Reporters Committee attorneys argued on behalf of the news media coalition that the press and public had a right to access the court records and proceedings under the First Amendment and common law.
“The conduct of U.S. prosecutors and the disposition of these cases by a U.S. court are matters of significant public interest and concern, and are presumptively open to the press and public as a matter of constitutional and common law,” the applications stated.
Openness, Reporters Committee attorneys argued, is a “bedrock principle” of the U.S. criminal justice system and essential to the ability of the press to report fully and accurately on court proceedings, and for the public to hold the judicial system accountable.
The unsealed documents informed reporting on the AUC from NPR, CNN Español and El Tiempo. The released documents also led to an in-depth New York Times report chronicling the rise of the AUC and detailing the impact of the paramilitary leaders’ extradition and their sentences, which were unknown prior to the unsealing. The story explained how the Justice Department rewarded paramilitary leaders for guilty pleas by treating most as first-time offenders and shortening many of their sentences by taking into consideration the time they had served in Colombian prisons. For example, released records revealed that Mancuso — a large-scale cocaine trafficker who Colombian courts deemed responsible for 1,000 deaths or disappearances — originally faced 30 years to life in prison for his crimes. Instead, prosecutors asked for less than 22 years and a federal judge sentenced Mancuso to under 16 years.
Court filings related to the unsealing litigation are available here.