Revelations that several laptop computers owned by paramilitary bosses extradited to the United States this month were not kept secure by Colombian officials have raised concerns about government carelessness with potential evidence.
Colombia's Interior Ministry said it was investigating what happened to six of 11 laptops used by militia bosses in prison before they were extradited May 13 to face drug and terrorism charges in the United States. Chief prosecutor Mario Iguaran said an investigation could determine whether anyone tampered with the laptops.
The computer used by paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso has not been recovered, but the hard drive of a laptop owned by Ramiro "Cuco" Vanoy was returned by his attorney a week after Vanoy was sent with 13 others to the United States.
Four other laptops belonging to paramilitary leaders were out of the possession of government officials for up to two days after the leaders were extradited. Some computers had been turned over to family members or attorneys by prison officials before being recovered by the government.
An official at INPEC, the national agency in charge of running the prisons, said maintaining the "chain of custody" of the laptops and other personal effects of the prisoners is not its responsibility.
"When people leave the institutions, their property, whether it be televisions, radio or clothing, can only be claimed by their families," said the official, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak on the matter.
The paramilitary leaders had special permission to have cellphones and computers in their prison cells.
Ivan Cepeda, president of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, said the government's lax attitude on control of the paramilitary leaders' laptops shows a double standard.
"Imagine if the government had turned Raul Reyes' three laptops over to his family. There would have been a horrible scandal," Cepeda said, referring to computers that Colombian commandos recovered at a FARC camp in Ecuador in March. Reyes, the leftist rebel group's No. 2 commander, was killed in the raid.
The Colombian government alleges that files recovered from the laptops show that Reyes and other rebels were in contact with Venezuelan and Ecuadorean officials.
Starting in the 1980s, farmers and cattlemen formed and financed paramilitary armies as self-defense militias against leftist rebels, including the FARC. But many of the militias turned to organized crime, including drug trafficking. By 2006, most leaders and 31,000 fighters had laid down their arms in a government-sponsored demobilization program.
According to the terms of their surrender, the paramilitary leaders were promised light sentences and immunity from extradition as long as they gave up crime, confessed fully and made restitution to victims.
But the government extradited a total of 15 militia leaders this month after saying they had continued to run their illegal empires from their prison cells.
Before they were extradited, many paramilitary leaders, including Mancuso, were cataloging their alleged misdeeds, including mass killings, extortion and drug trafficking, to comply with the demobilization conditions. For that reason, critics say, the laptops were treasure troves of information and the government should have kept a closer eye on them.
Now that the leaders have been hustled off to the United States, with their confessions incomplete, victims groups worry that they may never hear a full accounting of their crimes.
"The government said these people were committing crimes in jail so they had to extradite them. For that reason, they should not have treated the laptops as normal appliances, like radios or televisions," Cepeda said.
"They should have been confiscated."