Andrés Felipe Arias Leiva, Colombia’s former agriculture minister who faces possible extradition over a case of alleged corruption, said recently at his home in Weston that the case stems from political persecution.
The reason, according to Arias Leiva: because he opposed Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in a bid that led to a peace pact with the Cuba-backed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla organization, which Arias Leiva fears could turn his country into another Cuba or Venezuela.
“I came to the United States looking for refuge and asylum for my family and for myself because I was a victim of political persecution by the current government of Colombia,” Arias Leiva, 43, said in an interview with el Nuevo Herald on Tuesday. “Together with all my political colleagues, starting with former President Álvaro Uribe, we oppose what the government of Juan Manuel Santos is doing with the FARC and the country.”
Arias Leiva warned that if he is extradited to Colombia, he would eventually be murdered in prison as reprisal for his opposition to the Santos strategy that recently led to an agreement that will give FARC a gateway to political power in Colombia. Besides being a guerrilla organization, FARC has been widely linked to drug trafficking.
On Monday, Santos denied allegations that he's tried to influence Arias' extradition, saying the decision is solely in the hands of the courts.
"The government of Colombia — my government — has never persecuted anyone," he said in a statement. "We've never moved a finger against Andrés Felipe Arias."
The Arias Leiva interview comes at a time when the federal prosecutor in the case, Robert Emery, has insisted that the judge in charge of the matter, John O’Sullivan, not dismiss the extradition request case. The former minister’s lawyers — David Oscar Markus, Ricardo J. Bascuas and Marc David Seitles — have requested dismissal on grounds that the treaty between Colombia and the United States is not in effect.
Emery has said in several motions, including one filed last week, that while Colombia internally does not consider the extradition pact to be in effect, internationally it is because neither Washington nor Bogotá has renounced it.
In the original extradition request from Emery’s office, filed in federal court in Miami on Aug. 11, Colombia accused Arias Leiva of having fled his country to avoid serving a 17-year sentence handed down by the court in Bogotá on July 16, 2014, in a case linked to corruption.
At no point did Colombian authorities directly accuse Arias Leiva of stealing money, but they did accuse him of having been involved in a case of embezzlement for third parties when — as minister — he supervised an agricultural program designed to promote productivity and competition in rural areas, and to prepare farmers for the globalization of the economy.
According to the original extradition request, Colombian authorities gathered evidence showing that Arias Leiva steered the program in politically advantageous ways.
“Arias Leiva used the ... program to invest in Colombian regional areas that were politically strategic to his presidential aspirations,” the request says.
In the interview at his Weston home, Arias Leiva denied any wrongdoing and insisted that the Colombian government distorted allegations to go after him.
Arias Leiva was a minister during the presidency of Uribe, who currently heads the opposition movement against the Santos-FARC peace accord. Arias Leiva said his political enemies set up the corruption case against him in retaliation for his opposition to the then-looming FARC accord.
“I disagree with President Santos’ policies to hand the country over to the FARC,” Arias Leiva said. “What is happening in Colombia is that they are allowing FARC ringleaders, who make up the world’s largest drug cartel, to gain access to the Colombian Congress, to be pardoned, to be amnestied and to be shielded from extradition to the United States.”
Giving political power to FARC leaders, he added, will speed their plans to impose communism in Colombia.
“The political program of FARC is communism,” Arias Leiva said. “And the FARC wants to transform Colombia into a country identical to Venezuela and Cuba. They want to abolish democracy, extinguish freedoms.”
None of this figures in the formal extradition case in court. The trial against Arias Leiva in Bogotá began in 2011 and ended on Feb. 25, 2014, according to the original complaint.
“On June 13, 2014,” the complaint says, “Arias Leiva fled Colombia by plane to the United States.”
The flight occurred about a month before the court sentenced Arias Leiva.
He said in the Weston interview that he did not flee the sentence, but left to seek refuge in the United States because he had evidence that he had committed no crime, he was a victim of political persecution and he was afraid he would be a target of assassination.
Among the pieces of evidence Arias Leiva cited was a letter from former attorney general Alejandro Ordonez to Judge O’Sullivan denying that the former minister is a criminal.
He also cited a letter from Colombia’s former deputy comptroller general, Roberto Hoyos Botero, who described Arias Leiva as a victim of persecution.
“I have no doubt affirming that it is a clear and unjust persecution of former minister Andrés Felipe Arias, and his extradition to Colombia would amount to a display of contempt toward opponents of President Santos and the agreement signed with the world’s largest drug cartel,” according to the Hoyos Botero letter, quoted by Arias Leiva.
When he arrived from Colombia in June 2014, Arias Leiva asked for asylum.
“I cannot go back to Colombia because they will assassinate me,” he said. “I have documented many episodes of threats, of people following my family and two possible attempts on my life by the FARC.”
In the end, Arias Leiva added, he is confident that American officials will act fairly.
“I came to the United States because I know the values on which this country was founded,” he said. “I did not go to any other country where I could have hidden, because I came here not to hide but to seek justice, because I love this country, because I trust in the justice of this country.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jim Wyss in Bogotá contributed to this report. Follow Alfonso Chardy on Twitter: @AlfonsoChardy