Former Guerrilla Leader Turned Congressman on Hunger Strike in Jail
By Anthony Dest, PhD Candidate, University of Texas at at Austin
On Monday evening, federal agents arrested Seuxis Hernández Solarte at his home in Bogota. Better known by his nom de guerre Jesús Santrich, the recently elected congressional representative of the FARC’s political party played a central role in the negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In protest of his arrest, Santrich engaged in his second hunger strike of the last year—the first twenty-five day hunger strike responded to the continued incarceration of FARC political prisoners after the signing of the Peace Accords.
According to the INTERPOL Red Notice referenced in his arrest, the Southern District Court of New York indicted Santrich and three other FARC members for conspiring to import ten metric tons of cocaine into the United States, the world’s largest consumer of cocaine. It alleges that between June 1, 2017 and April 4, 2018, Santrich and his accomplices “agreed to provide 10,000 kilograms of cocaine and the buyers agreed to provide $15 million USD toward the purchase of that cocaine, which the buyers would deliver to one of the co-conspirators’ associates in Miami, Florida.” These charges are serious and could result in his extradition if approved by the Colombian judicial system.
During a press conference on Tuesday morning, FARC leader Ivan Marquez criticized the arrest of Santrich – who is blind and under heavy surveillance since the signing of the 2016 Peace Accord – as “another set up by the crooked U.S. judicial system.” According to the FARC’s official statement, “With the capture of our comrade Jesus Santrich, the peace process is at its most critical moment and is on the verge of becoming a true failure.”
The arrest and possible extradition of Santrich deals a strong blow to Colombia’s already shaky peace process with the FARC. After more than half a century of internal armed conflict, Latin America’s oldest clandestine guerrilla group kept its initials and converted into an aboveground political party, the Revolutionary Alternative Force of the Commons. The Peace Accords represent a major accomplishment that, if implemented, would address some of the root causes of the Colombian conflict.
However, the Colombian government has been slow to move from paper to practice. The reforms promising to provide the rural poor with land titles and alternative development programs to substitute illicit crops are barely off the ground. Instead of support from the government, many coca growers confront the barrel of a gun or the toxic fumes of pesticides used in the forced eradication illicit crops, as evidenced by the police killing of seven protestors in October 2017. After spending more than $10 billion in mostly military and police aid through Plan Colombia, the U.S. government refuses to support any peacebuilding programs that include the FARC, which remains on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Now, with recidivism rates upwards of 10% among former FARC guerrillas, the government’s lackadaisical commitment to effectively and safely reintegrating disarmed combatants portends a new stage of violence. The threat of extradition only amplifies the ex-guerrillas’ distrust of the government. The ELN, Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group currently negotiating with the government in Ecuador, took note. On Tuesday morning, they published a statement on Santrich’s arrest entitled: “The United States Attacks the Peace Accords.”
Throughout the negotiations, the issue of extradition represented a red line for the FARC—guerrillas were not willing to trade in their arms only to do hard time in a U.S. prison. As a reminder, the FARC kept a cut out of alias Simon Trinidad, a FARC leader currently serving a 60-year sentence in the United States, and included him in the list of negotiators, as they unsuccessfully demanded his freedom. Currently, about 60 members of the FARC are wanted by the U.S. judicial system. The Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP) established by the Peace Accords ostensibly alleviated the FARC’s concerns about extradition by ensuring immunity for crimes committed prior to the Accords (excluding crimes against humanity). But the charges against Santrich violate the stipulations for immunity because they occurred after the signing of the Accords. If found guilty of the charges, he would not have immunity from prosecution, since the events happened after the signing of the accords. Now, Santrich’s case will serve as the first major test of the JEP, as it determines the procedure for prosecution. As one of the most radically defiant voices in the FARC, Santrich’s arrest raises concerns about the potential use of judicial measures to silence political opposition in the aftermath of the Peace Accords.
The move to prioritize extradition by the U.S. Department of Justice under Sessions and Trump right before the Summit of the Americas should not come as a surprise, especially considering their vigorous support for pursuing maximum sentencing for drug-related crimes. This includes state-sanctioned death sentences and support for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous Drug War. Yet, by pursuing the extradition of Santrich and other FARC members, U.S. and Colombian authorities risk losing the FARC’s buy-in during this crucial moment for building peace in Colombia and falling back into a vicious cycle of violence.