Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(Week of April 8-14)

FARC Leader Jesús Santrich Arrested, May Be Extradited

On the evening of April 9, police arrested demobilized FARC leader Seuxis Pausivas Hernández, alias “Jesús Santrich,” at his home near the Bogotá airport. The arrest complies with an Interpol Red Notice, issued days after the U.S. Department of Justice’s Southern District of New York convinced a grand jury to indict Santrich for conspiring to send cocaine to the United States. The guerrilla leader is now being held in the concrete-walled Bogotá headquarters (often called the “bunker”) of Colombia’s prosecutor-general’s office (Fiscalía).

An ideologist more than a fighter—he nearly always wears sunglasses due to poor eyesight—the 50-year-old Santrich was a fixture during all four years of peace talks in Havana, often delivering the FARC’s declarations to reporters after negotiating sessions. “Santrich was, by far, the most radical, intelligent and intransigent of the plenipotentiary negotiators,” Juanita León of La Silla Vacía wrote after his arrest. “In addition to a close friendship with [chief FARC negotiator] Iván Márquez, Santrich has much leadership among the guerrilla base, because he defended several points that were important to them.” In mid-2017, Santrich went on a lengthy hunger strike to pressure the government to speed its promised releases of amnestied guerrilla prisoners.

The U.S. prosectors’ indictment of Santrich, dated April 4, accuses the guerrilla leader of agreeing to export ten tons of cocaine to the United States in exchange for US$15 million. It states that the events in question took place starting in June 2017. The Havana peace accord protects FARC members from extradition to the United States for crimes committed before the accord’s December 2016 ratification. The accusations against Santrich, however, fall outside of that timeframe, making his extradition to the United States a distinct near-term possibility.

As a result, León contends, his arrest “is the greatest challenge to the peace process since Congress accepted the re-negotiated accord” after voters rejected the first version in an October 2016 plebiscite.

Over the course of the week, Colombian prosecutors made public some of the evidence against Santrich. “Very few cases have so much probatory accreditation [evidence] as this one,” Chief Prosecutor (Fiscal General) Néstor Humberto Martínez said. The story is as follows:

Mid-2017: members of the Fiscalía’s Technical Investigations Corps (CTI) investigating possible irregularities in healthcare contracts for demobilized guerrillas begin to focus on an associate of Santrich’s, Marlon Marín, a 39-year-old lawyer who is Iván Márquez’s nephew.

Telephone intercepts detect periodic references to a group calling itself “The Family.” It apparently includes Marín; Fabio Simón Younes, director of a Florida-based company listed as “inactive”; and Armando Gómez, a businessman and the father of a Colombian beauty queen. The intercepts include conversations with Mexicans about a possible drug trafficking operation. A Fiscalía investigator shares with Chief Prosecutor Martínez his suspicion that the Mexicans may be DEA agents. Martínez checks with U.S. embassy contacts, who confirm that they are. (Or they may be genuine Mexican traffickers with a DEA mole in their midst—it’s not clear.)

August 14, 2017: In a phone conversation Gómez, the businessman, mentions “five televisions that the buyers are interested in testing out,” an apparent reference to five kilograms of cocaine whose quality the Mexicans insist on evaluating before moving ahead with any deal. He says that the sample is for “Marco,” one of the Mexicans, who are apparently Sinaloa cartel representatives.

October 2017: The phone calls intensify. Before sealing the deal, the Mexicans tell Marín that they wish to meet with someone of higher rank within his organization. That is when Santrich’s name comes up in the conversations. Marín begins trying to convince Santrich to meet with the would-be Mexican purchasers.

October 18, 2017: Marín is recorded trying to convince Santrich’s assistant to get Santrich to meet with the Mexicans. Marín says he just needs “the blind man” to “simply say to them, everything’s cool, everything’s good, it’s all up to me, we’re good to go.” Sometime after that, Santrich agrees to meet with the Mexicans on the condition that Marín be present.

Late October 2017: Fulfilling the Mexicans’ precondition for holding a high-level meeting, Gómez meets with the Mexicans at a Bogotá hotel and hands them the five kilograms of cocaine (the “televisions”). The Mexicans later agree that the cocaine is of good quality.

Early November 2017: Santrich hosts the Mexicans at a pre-dawn meeting at his house. The Mexicans say they are in the employ of Rafael Caro Quintero, a top figure in the Sinaloa cartel who was released from prison on a technicality in August 2013, early in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s term. Caro had been given a 40-year term for the 1985 torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena; he remains an archenemy of the U.S. agency. His release after 28 years angered the U.S. government, distancing U.S.-Mexican relations. Upon gaining his freedom, Caro instantly disappeared.

One of the Mexican group takes an incriminatory photo with a camera apparently hidden in his clothing. The photo shows Santrich seated at the head of a table alongside Marín.

In the meeting, Marín tells the Mexicans that “The Family” has control of several cocaine laboratories. They agree to send seven tons in March, and the remaining three later.

The Mexicans ask that the purchase take place on U.S. soil (though it apparently ends up happening in Barranquilla). They give Santrich what they call a “token” to prove the identity of the FARC’s contact when the transaction takes place: a photocopy of a U.S. dollar bill that will be in the cocaine buyer’s possession. Sometime later, the DEA seizes the token in Florida during an apparent operation against “The Family.” U.S. prosecutors now have it in their custody, as evidence.

Santrich gives the Mexican visitors an ink drawing (he is a prolific artist). He inscribes it, “For don Rafa Caro, with esteem and hope for peace. Santrich.” It, too, is now in U.S. prosecutors’ possession.

Sometime afterward, Younes, the “Family” member, begins making connections in Miami for aircraft.

February 2018: “The Family” tells the Mexicans that they are having difficulty obtaining the cocaine because of recent “bombings.” Colombian investigators note that during this time period, Colombia’s army bombed some guerrilla dissident group encampments in southern Colombia. The Fiscalía believes that the cocaine suppliers are in Cauca and Nariño departments in southwestern Colombia, a zone with a significant presence of un-demobilized or recidivist FARC members.

Probably March 2018: Santrich gets a call from someone named “Fabio,” who warns him that there is a plan afoot to arrest and extradite him. Fabio says that “a man in the Police” told him. “We got sold out,” Prosecutor-General Martínez reportedly says. Sometime afterward, U.S. prosecutors decide to go ahead and indict Santrich based on existing evidence. This happens on April 4, and Santrich is arrested on April 9.

The arrest set off alarms within the FARC, for whom non-extradition for crimes committed before the accord was a non-negotiable point during the Havana talks. In at least some of the “Territorial Training and Reconciliation Spaces” (ETCR), the sites where much of the ex-guerrillas remain congregated and protected by the security forces, “they were glued to the television and the situation was very tense,” La Silla Vacía reported. “‘There’s a lot of anxiety, they’re basically afraid that now they can grab anybody,’ a source in one of the spaces told us. One of the FARC’s leaders in the south told us: ‘if this is breakfast, what will dinner be like.’” Protests continued at the remote sites all week.

Iván Márquez, the FARC’s former chief negotiator and the uncle of co-conspirator Marín, told reporters that the arrest of his friend (and fellow hardliner) Santrich was “the worst moment in the peace process.” He called the case a setup arranged by the Fiscalía and the United States that will sow distrust throughout the guerrilla ranks, hinting that many might be tempted to re-arm. “With Jesús Santrich’s arrest, the process is threatening to be a real failure,” reads a FARC statement. “The coincidence with Saturday’s visit of Donald Trump draws my attention,” said FARC legal advisor, Spanish lawyer Enrique Santiago. (Trump was to stop in Colombia after the April 13-14 Summit of the Americas in Peru. Later in the week, he canceled his entire trip.)

FARC leaders demanded to meet with President Juan Manuel Santos, and a delegation led by the party’s maximum leader, Rodrigo Londoño alias Timochenko, did so on April 11. All agreed that Santrich’s due process rights would be fully respected. They also agreed to establish (yet another) commission to speed implementation of the government’s peace accord commitments, many of which are lagging badly.

“I won’t extradite anyone for crimes committed before the accord’s signing and in relation to the conflict,” Santos said in a carefully worded statement. “Having said that, if after receiving due process and with irrefutable proof there are grounds for extradition for crimes committed after the accord’s signing, I will not hesitate to authorize it, based on the Supreme Court’s finding.”

In an April 11 statement, Timochenko said that the FARC remains committed to the peace accord. “Colombia’s peace isn’t conditioned on the problems, or the people, who form part of the organization,” he said, appealing for unity among the ex-combatants. That same day, though, an angry Iván Márquez told reporters, “One mustn’t lie like in this case, just to obstruct the progress of peace. Santrich told me: ‘the second one will be you [Márquez].’”

While this timetable of publicly available evidence points to Santrich’s guilt, it also shows him to be a reluctant conspirator, pulled into a meeting at the repeated insistence of Marín, who seems to handle all of the details. The right thing for Santrich to do, of course, would have been to report Marín, his friend’s nephew, to the police—not a natural instinct for a lifelong insurgent. Instead, he fell into the sort of trap that other guerrilla leaders are doubtless aware could easily ensnare them.

What happens next will be a big test of the peace process. It could bolster support in public opinion, taking away critics’ argument that the peace accord grants the FARC too much impunity. However, it also feeds into the narrative, common among right-wing critics, that the FARC are still up to their old ways. On the other side, any perception that Santrich’s due process is being denied, and that he is being extradited in haste, may send dozens or hundreds of ex-guerrillas back into the jungle for fear of sharing his fate.

The next steps will also test the new judicial institutions being set up to implement the accords. Santrich’s case must begin in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), whose Review Chamber will have to take the step of finding that the evidence points to crimes committed after the accord’s signing. The JEP would then have to turn the case over to Colombia’s regular criminal justice system, where Santrich could be subject to longer prison sentences for war crimes, or to extradition.

The JEP, which is to try cases of war crimes and other aspects of ex-guerrillas’ legal status like narcotrafficking charges, has barely begun to function. The Constitutional Court hasn’t yet finished reviewing its enabling law, passed at the end of November, and the law to govern its day-to-day functioning hasn’t yet been introduced in Congress.

Since the JEP is supposed to get the first “bite at the apple” in cases like these, there is some debate in Bogotá about whether it was correct for the Fiscalía—Colombia’s regular justice system—to have been the agency to arrest him. Opponents say that the Fiscalía may have violated procedure and given Santrich’s lawyers a technicality that they might try to use to get the case dropped. Proponents, though, say there was too great a risk that Santrich would flee once he heard about the indictment in New York.

It;s not clear when the JEP will make its determination about whether Santrich committed an extraditable offense after the accords’ signing, a momentous decision essentially kicking a top guerrilla negotiator out of the peace process. Meanwhile, though, the United States must issue a formal extradition request within 60 days, which must then go to Supreme Court review and finally to the President for signature.

In the meantime, Santrich is in a cell in the Fiscalía’s “bunker,” where he has been on another hunger strike, refusing food since his arrest.

He was to occupy one of the five House of Representatives seats that the peace accord granted the FARC for the 2018-2022 legislative session that starts in July. Colombian law states that when a member of Congress runs afoul of justice, his or her seat must remain empty for the remainder of the legislative session. It is not yet clear whether Santrich’s absence, then, reduces the FARC’s House delegation to four seats. The current president of the chamber, Rodrigo Lara, said there should be no “empty seat,” that the FARC could replace Santrich because he hadn’t been sworn in yet. (Lara, incidentally, is no peace proponent: during the last legislative session he helped to delay or water down much legislation to implement the accords.)

Urabeños Attack Kills 8 Police

An attack with explosives killed eight Colombian police and wounded two more on the morning of April 11 in the rural zone of San José de Urabá, Antioquia, in northwestern Colombia. The zone is a stronghold of the Urabeños, Colombia’s largest organized crime/paramilitary organization (also known as the Gulf Clan, the Usuga Clan, and the Gaitanistas). Authorities blame local Urabeños leader alias “Chiquito Malo” (“Bad Little Boy”) for the attack.

The explosive destroyed a vehicle carrying police who were accompanying a visit from the government’s Land Restitution Unit. Urabá is one of the most challenging territories in Colombia for land restitution: there, paramilitaries and local landowners massively displaced communities of small farmers in the 1990s and early 2000s, and are resisting efforts to return landholdings to their rightful owners.

Kidnapped Ecuadorian Reporters Believed Dead

An apparent communiqué from a FARC dissident organization stated that the group has killed two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver. The “Oliver Sinisterra Front,” active in Nariño, near the Ecuador border, had kidnapped the three men on March 26. Its statement reads that the governments of Ecuador and Colombia “didn’t want to save the lives fo the three retained people and chose the military route, making landings in several points where the retained people were located, which produced their death.”

Upon hearing that Javier Ortega and Paul Rivas Bravo of Quito’s daily El Comercio were likely dead, along with their driver Efraín Segarra, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno left the Summit of the Americas meetings in Lima, Peru. At week’s end, he gave the dissident group, led by former FARC member Wálter Arizara alias “Guacho,” 12 hours to produce proof that the hostages were still alive.

Earlier, President Moreno had lamented that Colombia’s persistent conflict was reaching into Ecuador. He blamed his predecessor, Rafael Correa (in whose government he was vice president, but who is now his political enemy) for allowing problems to fester at the border. “Of course, we lived in peace, but we lived in a peace in which drugs were allowed to transit through our territory.” Ecuador’s border regions have long been an important transshipment point for cocaine, and Colombian armed groups have freely crossed for decades. Security analysts often refer to an informal arrangement in the border zone, in which Ecuadorian forces would not confront Colombian armed groups as long as they abstained from inciting violence or harming Ecuadorian citizens. If such an agreement exists, Guacho’s group has violated it several times this year with attacks on Ecuadorian security forces.

ELN-EPL Violence Continues in Catatumbo

Fighting between the ELN and a smaller, local guerrilla group, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL, which the government often calls “Los Pelusos”) continues to generate a humanitarian crisis in Catatumbo, a barely governed agricultural region in Norte de Santander department, near the Venezuelan border, that includes one of the country’s largest concentrations of coca. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has documented the displacement of about 1,350 people in the region in the month since a longtime arrangement between the ELN and the EPL broke down.

Both groups have been active in Catatumbo for decades. The EPL, with perhaps 200-300 members, can trace its lineage back to a remnant that refused to demobilize when a Maoist insurgency with the same name negotiated a peace agreement in the late 1980s. The EPL lost its longtime leader (alias “Megateo”) to a military attack in late 2015, and a year later the FARC—also present in Catatumbo—pulled out and demobilized in compliance with the peace accord. This opened up lucrative spaces for cocaine smuggling and other organized crime activity.

These changes upended the cordial ELN-EPL relationship, and fighting broke out between the two groups in mid-March. As both have deep roots in Catatumbo communities, the region’s population is caught in the crossfire; schools have suspended classes and many businesses are shuttered.

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Drug Policy, Extradition, U.S. Policy, Weekly update

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