BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A former Colombian rebel leader was re-arrested by police Friday moments after his release from jail by a peace tribunal whose ruling against extraditing him to the U.S. triggered an institutional crisis and revived debate about justice for victims of the country’s armed conflict.
Prison authorities escorted Seuxis Hernández in a wheelchair to the gates of La Picota jail outside Bogota. His wrists were bandaged from what prison authorities described earlier as self-inflicted wounds that required emergency medical attention.
But as soon as he was beyond the prison gates, his hand help up in a “V” for victory sign, a group of police took him back into state custody as riot police held back a small group of supporters who had gathered to demand his release. Moments later he was loaded onto a helicopter and shuttled away to the chief prosecutor’s headquarters.
A special tribunal investigating war crimes during Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict ruled Wednesday that the ex-peace negotiator best known by his alias Jesús Santrich should not be extradited to the United States, where he’s wanted on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges.
The decision triggered the resignation of Colombia’s chief prosecutor and has renewed debate about whether the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is too lenient with rebel leaders.
At issue is whether the alleged crimes took place before or after the signing of the December 2016 peace accord between the government and the FARC. Rebels who lay down their weapons and confess to crimes are spared jail time and extradition but aren’t protected for crimes committed after the signing.
The chief prosecutor’s office said in a statement that it had abided by the peace tribunal’s ruling in the extradition case but had opened its own Colombian investigation based on new evidence provided in the past 48 hours from the U.S. authorities that laid bare the precise dates and circumstances of the alleged crimes.
An Interpol notice for Santrich’s arrest claims he met with cocaine buyers at his residence on Nov. 2, 2017. During that meeting and subsequent negotiations, he and his co-conspirators allegedly discussed plans for a 10-ton shipment to the U.S., boasting they had access to cocaine laboratories and U.S.-registered planes to move the cargo, the notice says.
Santrich has repeatedly professed his innocence, saying he was the victim of a scheme led by the U.S. and conservative opponents of the peace deal to put him behind bars.
The fight over Santrich’s extradition has revived the polarizing politics over the 2016 peace deal that aimed to put behind a half century of guerrilla fighting that has left 250,000 people dead and millions displaced.
Critics of the decision, including President Ivan Duque, said the peace tribunal overstepped its authority and with the stroke of a pen is undermining decades of close anti-narcotics cooperation with the U.S. The nation’s chief prosecutor, Nestor Martinez, immediately resigned in protest, calling the ruling a slap in the face for Colombia’s democracy and the many victims of the armed conflict
“I have been, am and will continue to be ready to sign the extradition for alias Jesus Santrich and any other drug trafficker,” Duque said in a late-night address Wednesday in which he announced he would appeal the ruling.
The U.S. Embassy in Bogota this week called the ruling “regrettable,” arguing that the extradition request satisfied all Colombian requirements and firmly established that the alleged crimes took place after the signing of the peace deal.
But in explaining its decision, the peace tribunal’s magistrates said that the U.S. State Department did not provide the evidence requested and that intercepted audios held up as proof did not clearly indicate Santrich was culpable. The tribunal also argued that trying Santrich in Colombia instead of the U.S. is the best way to consolidate peace.
Meanwhile, the tribunal continues to look into other alleged crimes by FARC and recently ordered the capture of former FARC leader Hernán Velásquez, better known by his alias “El Paisa,” for failing to fulfill his commitments under the peace deal and provide testimony about kidnappings carried out by the rebels.
“This is an extremely arbitrary action,” said leftist Senator Ivan Cepeda.
Santrich, is a blind rebel ideologue who was one of the most-important negotiators during peace talks that stretched for years in Cuba.
The FARC long funded its operations by leveling a “war tax” on cocaine moving through its territory. Fifty members of its leadership structure were indicted in 2006 in the U.S. on charges of running the world’s largest drug cartel. But the guerrillas always denied direct involvement in the business itself.