Colombia

Miami judge orders ex-Colombian minister convicted of corruption sent home

Former Colombian Minister of Agriculture Andrés Felipe Arias, pictured in December 2016, explains his side of the corruption charges against him. A federal judge has ordered Arias’ extradition to Colombia.
Former Colombian Minister of Agriculture Andrés Felipe Arias, pictured in December 2016, explains his side of the corruption charges against him. A federal judge has ordered Arias’ extradition to Colombia. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Three years after evading corruption charges by moving to South Florida, a former Colombian agriculture minister and one-time presidential candidate may be headed home.

A federal judge on Thursday ordered the extradition of Andrés Felipe Arias, who was convicted by a Colombian court in 2014 of funneling millions to wealthy political supporters from a subsidy program created to help poor farmers.

Magistrate Judge John O’Sullivan’s ruling came after a yearlong legal battle in which Arias’ lawyers argued that the corruption charges were politically motivated. They also maintained that an extradition treaty between the United States and Colombia was not in effect, an argument O’Sullivan rejected in February.

“We will continue fighting for Minister Arias — his bogus Colombian conviction was rendered by a politicized and corrupt court. And his extradition is being requested when there is no treaty,” David Oscar Markus and Lauren Doyle, two of Arias’ Miami attorneys, said in an email.

Arias’ legal team plans to file a habeas petition to contest O’Sullivan’s decision. “Colombia is laughing at us as they deny U.S. extradition requests for terrorists, narco-traffickers and FARC members. This is wrong,” the lawyers said in the email.

Arias left Colombia for South Florida in June 2014, three weeks before he was convicted of embezzlement by appropriation, a Colombian law that penalizes the unauthorized use of public funds to benefit private entities. Arias was later sentenced in absentia to 17 years in prison. He was able to flee to the United States because the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá renewed his tourist visa while he was on trial, the Miami Herald learned — despite a 2004 presidential proclamation barring foreign officials suspected of corruption from entering the country.

Once in South Florida, Arias applied for asylum, arguing that he was a victim of political persecution. He said his opposition to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla organization had made him a target. Arias was arrested last year at his home in Weston and later released on bond.

Arias served as Colombia’s minister of agriculture between 2005 and 2009. His signature policy was a $700 million subsidy program whose purpose was to help farmers prepare for the challenges of globalization and “reduce inequality in rural areas.” The program became mired in scandal, however, when news reports revealed that wealthy families with political connections had received millions in grants. Beneficiaries included relatives of lawmakers, companies owned by the richest man in Colombia, and a former beauty queen.

The law that established the program did not ban wealthy landowners from getting grants, but some elite families had received multiple subsidies for the same farm. At trial, prosecutors argued that $12.5 million in grants had been steered toward political supporters.

Arias is one of a number of former Latin American officials accused of corruption and other crimes who have moved to South Florida in recent years. Last month, a judge ordered the extradition of former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli to face criminal charges.

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