Colombian family to collect $191.4 million in U.S. seized assets

Miami-Dade Circuit Court rules to make Marxist rebels and criminals in illicit cocaine trade pay for Colombian family tragedy amid 50 year bloody civil war

Carlos Octavio Caballero Cormane was kidnapped, tortured and killed in 1999. Records show that Colombian authorities initially blamed The National Liberation Army (ELN) for his death.

MIAMI - It was a brutal week even for Colombians trapped in an armed conflict.

That week a Roman Catholic bishop had been kidnapped for the second time. And the bullet-riddle body of a former senator who had been kidnapped turned up on a remote dirt road.

Politics had become a matter of life and deathl since the 1940s. Businessmen were caught in a web of Cold War grudges over wealth distribution in the 60s. Criminal greed over drug trafficking had exploded into mayhem in the 80s. Massacres lead the news regularly in the 90s and the kidnapping trend was worsening.

"Colombia has turned into a hell," Jose Castro, a politician said on Caracol radio August 1999. He had escaped a kidnapping plot that involved explosives at his home, and he was upset over the former senator's death.

Carlos Octavio Caballero Cormane was his friend. When relatives identified his body, they learned the former ambassador to the United Nations had been tortured. The 77-year-old was a father of 10 -- Antonio, Jacqueline, Carlos, Jaime, Ricardo, Maria Victoria, Fernando, Maria, Jimena and Jorge.

He was 76 when he was taken hostage Feb. 12, 1999 on his way to Pivijay, Magdalena. Authorities believed the member of the business elite became a target due to his land in the Magdalena River Valley, a strategic area for smuggling cocaine to the U.S. Despite government opposition, the family found a way to pay millions for ransom, but the guerrilla fighters killed him anyway.

"May the death of my father make an effective contribution toward peace, because he is one of the silent martyrs of this war," his son Carlos Caballero Wightman said in Spanish during his dad's August 17, 1999 service in Barranquilla, El Tiempo newspaper reported.


About 15 years later, his son Antonio Caballlero Wightman says he found some justice in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, the Miami Herald's Jim Wyss reports. The U.S. freezes the assets of groups associated with terrorism worldwide. The court recently awarded Caballero a right to $191.4 million of those assets, which will be collected as they become available.

Caballero filed the lawsuit in 2012 seeking at least $75,000 in compensation with the help of Zumpano, Patricios & Winker, a Coral Gables firm. Like many Colombian families were forced to do, The Caballero family fled to different parts of the world. Some live in the U.S.: In Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, New York and Miami. Some live in Canada. Others chose to stay in Colombia: In Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla and Santa Marta.

"There is a record that needs to be made ... People should not forget the horrific acts of brutality," attorney Joseph Zumpano said after the lawsuit was filed. "They took a person who was one of the most prominent people in the nation and discarded his body on a dirt road."

The complaint  argued that U.S. federal laws -- including the Alien Tort Statute and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- gave the court jurisdiction. Most recently, President Barack Obama passed the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act, which seizes the assets of Venezuelans linked to human rights violations.

The lawsuit alleged that the plaintiff had no choice but to try to seek justice in Miami-Dade, because returning to Colombia to file a claim "would place his life in extreme peril." The lawsuit also said that Caballero "has suffered and continues to suffer emotional, psychological and economic damages" and that both U.S. and Colombian laws hold his father's kidnappers liable for wrongful death.



Kidnapping remains a scourge of terror in Colombia. A Center for Historical Memory study estimates that at least 39,058 people were kidnapped between 1970 and 2010.

The Caballero family case in Miami-Dade claimed two leftist rebel groups designated as terrorist organizations -- The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) --  worked with The Norte del Valle drug cartel.

The now defunct Norte del Valle cartel rose after the U.S. took down the leaders of the Cali and Medellin cartels. And it went down in 2012, only to be replaced by The Rastrojos and Urabeños -- two violent cartels vying for control over drug trade and gold mines.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was re-elected to a four-year term in June. His administration is in peace talks with the well-funded FARC and ELN. Both armed groups were inspired on Fidel Castro's Marxist revolution in Cuba.

FARC representatives said on a statement Christmas Day that they were aiming for peace in 2015. The armed group's 1964 founder Manuel "Tirofijo" Marulanda died in 2008. The new leaders were trying to reach agreements in Havana, Cuba on a list of issues that include victims' compensation. 

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