Some Colombians fear ex-paramilitary leader deported from US

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In this photo released by the Colombian Migration Press Office, ex-paramilitary commander Hernan Giraldo Serna, center, is escorted upon arrival at the El Dorado airport after being deported from the U.S. to Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. Giraldo, 74, was deported from the U.S. and immediately taken into custody by authorities in Colombia, where he is expected to serve time for crimes against humanity, including torture, displacement, sexual slavery and kidnapping, as well as drug trafficking. (Colombian Migration Press Office via AP)

BUCARAMANGA – On the north coast of Colombia there is anxiety over the return to the South American country of one of the most feared former paramilitary commanders: Hernán Giraldo Serna. “El Patrón” (the boss) or “El Taladro” (the drill, as he became known for sexually abusing girls in the area) stepped on Colombian soil Monday after finishing a 16-year sentence in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking earlier this month.

Giraldo, 74, was deported from the U.S. and immediately taken into custody by authorities in Colombia, where he is expected to serve time for crimes against humanity, including torture, forced displacement of people, sexual slavery and kidnapping, as well as drug trafficking.

A photo provided by Colombian immigration authorities showed Giraldo stepping onto a jet bridge wearing a surgical mask and a bulletproof vest on top of gray sweatpants. Another photo showed him walking through a building with heavily armed police ahead and behind him.

Giraldo was first arrested in Colombia for those crimes in 2006, but he was extradited to face charges in the U.S. in 2008.

While in custody in the U.S., he cooperated with Colombian authorities and in 2018, he was sentenced in his homeland to 40 years in prison after confessing to more than 700 crimes affecting 10,600 victims. That prison term was reduced to eight years thanks to his cooperation under a special “Justice and Peace” system created to try paramilitary groups as part of the country's effort to end decades of conflict.

His defense team can now request his conditional freedom for participating in that system and for showing good conduct while in prison in the U.S., but Giraldo would have to agree to continue collaborating with authorities looking into other crimes he is accused of committing between 1980 and 2006.

“The time in the United States must be counted (in Colombia), because he was extradited and sentenced there for a crime related to the Colombian armed conflict. Drug trafficking was one of the products of paramilitarism,” Magistrate Carlos Pérez, president of the Justice and Peace Chamber in Barranquilla, recently told The Associated Press.

Giraldo’s criminal life began between the 1970s and 1980s, when he went from growing coffee to growing marijuana. The business took off, and he became the leader of dozens of farmers in the north of Colombia. Soon, his illegal, peasant self-defense group began vying with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia for control of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, an isolated mountain range in the northern part of the country.