When Cecilio Padrón, a former Miami resident and director of the Cuban American National Foundation, was kidnapped in Panama in 2008, his Colombian captors told his family they’d never see him alive unless they agreed to their demands.
Padrón eventually walked free, but only after spending almost a year in the jungle and after his family paid an undisclosed ransom.
Last month, it appeared that justice had caught up with one of his kidnappers. Julio Enrique Lemos Moreno, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was detained by Colombian authorities after he left the safety of the concentration zone where he and other guerrillas had gathered amid a historic peace deal.
But on May 31, Colombia’s Supreme Court decided to release Lemos rather than comply with an outstanding extradition request to the United States.
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On Friday, Padrón’s son, Eric Padrón, a Miami lawyer, said the news of Lemos’ release caught him by surprise.
“My father had to be in the jungle for 11 months,” he said in a telephone interview. “What this person put my family through and me through — I’m the one who had to negotiate with the kidnappers and had to deliver the ransom. ... That this guy is walking around scot-free is not right.”
Lemos’ fate is now at the center of a U.S.-Colombia diplomatic spat that highlights how tricky peace can be.
In a strongly worded letter to Colombia’s Supreme Court released by Colombia’s RCN news, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker questioned Lemos’ release, saying U.S. authorities believed he had ordered the kidnapping driven by personal greed — and therefore shouldn’t be eligible for special judicial treatment under the terms of the peace deal.
“As you know, the United States government has supported the peace process in Colombia,” Whitaker wrote in the June 7 letter. “One of the key pillars of the process is to reach a stable and durable peace through justice. In that sense, the Peace Accord explicitly establishes that individuals who commit crimes for personal gain are excluded from any special treatment.”
The U.S. Embassy would not verify the letter’s authenticity, saying it does not comment on private diplomatic correspondence.
According to an indictment in the Southern District of New York, which was unsealed in 2009, Lemos was among those who ordered the kidnapping of an American citizen on April 4, 2008, in the Costa del Este neighborhood of Panama City.
“The defendants held the victim for ransom, which they demanded from the victim’s relatives, informing the relatives that they would never see the victim alive again if the ransom was not paid,” the indictment states. “The victim was released in February 2009, after a member of the victim’s family paid the ransom.”
While the victim goes unnamed in the court document, media reports at the time and Eric Padrón confirmed that the hostage was Cecilio Padrón.
The elder Padrón had been a director of Miami’s Cuban American National Foundation in the 1980s before becoming a real-estate developer in Panama. Padrón, now in his 70s, still lives in Panama, his son said.
Last November, after more than four years of tense negotiations, the Colombian government and the FARC hammered out a controversial peace deal that aims to end more than 50 years of fighting.
Under the terms of the deal, guerrillas who committed lesser crimes within the context of the conflict are eligible for amnesty. Those accused of serous crimes, like murder and kidnapping, can avoid jail time as long as they confess, provide compensation to their victims and meet certain other requirements.
President Juan Manuel Santos had said that the leniency was key to having the FARC lay down its weapons and become a political party. But that leniency has also alarmed human rights groups, and now the U.S. Embassy.
“I am deeply worried that this decision is inconsistent with the need for justice,” Whitaker said in the letter, which was also delivered to President Santos, “and it risks creating a worrisome and dangerous precedent for bilateral justice.”
Starting in December, about 7,000 members of the FARC have gathered in 26 concentration zones around the country to begin the process of reintegration. The areas are essentially safe zones, where the guerrillas are free from arrest.
But according to media reports, Lemos was detained in February when he left his concentration zone to attend a medical appointment in the city of Medellín. At the time the FARC blasted the government for arresting him while on medical leave.
While Lemos appears safe for the moment, Whitaker said the U.S. government would continue exploring its legal options “with the objective of guaranteeing that Lemos faces justice in the United States for the serious crimes of which he’s accused.”
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss