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Colombia justice in turmoil after court refuses to extradite former guerrilla

Jim Wyss, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's attorney general abruptly resigned Wednesday after the country's Special Peace Tribunal refused to extradite a former commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to the United States on drug trafficking charges.

Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez told the court that he wouldn't sign off on the release of Seuxis Paucias Hernandez, better known as Jesus Santrich, because "my conscience and my devotion to the rule of law will not allow me to."

Santrich is a longtime member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and one of the negotiators of the historic but controversial 2016 peace deal that ended the group's half-century armed struggle and allowed it to become a political party.

In April 2018, a U.S. court indicted Santrich and others of conspiring to send tons of cocaine to the United States. Because some of the alleged criminal activity took place after the signing of the peace deal, the U.S. argued his case should have been overseen by Colombia's regular court system.

Instead, the Special Peace Tribunal, or JEP, a body established under the landmark deal, oversaw his case. The JEP had asked the U.S. to share its proof against Santrich but the request was denied. The U.S. argues that existing treaties don't require anything beyond an indictment to trigger extradition.

In a statement, the JEP asked the attorney general's office to free Santrich due to lack of evidence and lack of clarity about "the precise date" when the alleged drug trafficking took place.

Santrich, who is blind, has always maintained his innocence and said he was being railroaded by enemies of the peace deal. FARC-EP, the political party that emerged after the guerrillas demobilized, is demanding his immediate release, but it's unclear if and when that might happen amid a series of appeals.

U.S. officials have suggested that Colombia's failure to extradite Santrich might jeopardize bilateral cooperation between the two longtime allies.

Colombian President Ivan Duque, who won office in 2018, campaigned on trying to overhaul the peace agreement signed by his predecessor Juan Manuel Santos. But his attempt to modify the deal earlier this year -- including introducing language that might clarify extradition -- was shot down by congress. Many lawmakers worried that modifying the agreement after it had been ratified would threaten the entirety of the deal.

 

Duque was holding an emergency meeting with justice officials and his Peace Commissioner and was expected to make a statement late Wednesday.

The U.S. Embassy in Colombia has played an unusually active role in the debate, and has been accused of canceling the visa of a lawmaker who campaigned against Duque's reforms.

The peace deal was hailed by the international community and won Santos a Nobel Peace Prize, but it has remained controversial in Colombia, amid fears that it's too lenient on the former guerrillas.

Since its signing, both sides have accused each other of trying to undermine the deal. The FARC says more than 120 of its demobilized members have been assassinated since the pact was inked, including one former commander this week.

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