16 Years After Father's Killing, Colombian Family Sees Justice In U.S. Court

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Sisters Bela Henriquez, left, and Nadiezhda Henriquez with their mother, Zulma Chacin de Henriquez, center, testified about how Giraldo Serna's drug operations destroyed their family.
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It has been a long battle for the Henriquez family to finally sit in the same D.C. courtroom as the man who allegedly ordered the murder of their father and husband.

Hernan Giraldo Serna, a Colombian ex-paramilitary leader, was sentenced Friday to more than 16 years in prison for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.

Bela, Nadiezhda and Zulma Henriquez, who traveled to the United States from Colombia and Venezuela, became the first foreign victims to be heard in a U.S. courtroom regarding an international drug conspiracy case. As Giraldo Serna walked in, they held one another tightly, and drew up the courage to tell the story of their father, Julio Henriquez Santamaria.

It's a story about plants, farmers and fishermen decades ago in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in Colombia. An environmental activist and peasant organizer, Henriquez suggested a plan that posed a threat to the paramilitary leaders: to stop growing coca around the city of Santa Marta.

According to the family, on Feb. 4, 2001, he was in a community meeting trying to create an environmental association. In the middle of the meeting, he was taken and put into a white van. He never came back.

The next day Zulma and her daughters traveled from Bogota, where they had just moved for educational opportunities. They went straight to Santa Marta to look for their father.

"No one, nothing, nobody informed us — nobody gave us details on what they saw," says Nadiezhda Henriquez, Julio Henriquez's oldest daughter. "There was fear and control. If Giraldo Serna didn't authorize anyone to say where he was buried, no one was going to say it."

It wasn't until years later that Giraldo Serna's lawyers provided coordinates that led to Henriquez's decomposed body. The body was exhumed. The family refused to turn the body over to the state because they said they didn't trust the prosecutors.

In Colombia's long and strained history with war, drugs, paramilitaries took a stronghold of the country law and order. Giraldo Serna was one of these leaders known to give orders.

Also known as El Patron or The Drill, he wasn't only a paramilitary leader responsible for drug operations and homicides, but also responsible for the rape of several girls under the age of 14. One organization believes at least 13 such girls gave birth to his children.

But in 2008, along with 13 other paramilitary leaders, he was extradited to the United States under Colombia's Justice and Peace Law.

"By the time he was convicted and sentenced for the forced disappearance of Julio Henriquez, he had been extradited. He was ordered to be imprisoned for 37.5 years and to pay economic compensation to the family," says Roxanna Altholz, the the Henriquezes' lawyer and the associate director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley.

This extradition represented something more for the Henriquez family.

"When we found out that they were extradited, and among them was Mr. Giraldo, we saw that we lost the chance to know the truth for justice," said widow Zulma Chacin de Henriquez.

The family wanted to pursue justice in honor of their father. In 2009, they filed to be recognized as victims under the Crime Victims' Rights Act of 2004. The motion wasn't recognized until 2015. Giraldo Serna's case kept being pushed back, but they finally were able to voice their story, and the Henriquezes became the only Colombians to speak before one of the extradited paramilitary leaders.

Although the defendant's lawyer, Robert Feitel, pushed for a 12-year sentence, Judge Reggie Walton stated that finding the balance was difficult. But he also said that he couldn't overlook the violence that Giraldo Serna and his cocaine trafficking caused his victims and issued a 16-and-a-half year sentence.

The family embraced after an arduous day of reliving trauma in court. They were relieved that the judge heard them, and told Colombian media waiting for them outside that it's a first step in the right direction — but that in the end, it didn't matter how many years Giraldo Serna was given, because it never would bring back their father and husband.

What keeps Bela Henriquez strong are her father's dreams. A biologist helping the development of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, she says, "his dreams, became our dreams."

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