Colombia justice in turmoil after court refuses to extradite former guerrilla

Colombia’s attorney general abruptly resigned on Wednesday after the country’s Special Peace Tribunal, or JEP, refused to extradite a former commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to the United States on drug trafficking charges.

Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez told the court that he wouldn’t sign off on the release of Seuxis Paucias Hernández, better known as Jesús Santrich, because “my conscience and my devotion to the rule of law will not allow me to.”

Santrich is a longtime FARC member and one of the negotiators of the historic but controversial 2016 peace deal that ended the group’s half-century armed struggle and allowed it to become a political party.

In April 2018, a U.S. court indicted Santrich and others of conspiring to send tons of cocaine to the United States. Because some of the alleged criminal activity took place after the signing of the peace deal, the U.S. argued his case should have been overseen by Colombia’s regular court system.

Instead, the Special Peace Tribunal, a body established under the landmark deal, oversaw his case. The JEP had asked the U.S. to share its proof against Santrich but the request was denied. The U.S. argues that existing treaties don’t require anything beyond an indictment to trigger extradition.

In a statement, the JEP said because the U.S. had failed to provide evidence, it could not confirm the alleged crimes or the date when they occurred. It also ordered the attorney general to release Santrich immediately. Shortly after Humberto Martínez resigned in protest, his deputy, Maria Paulina Riveros also stepped down.

Santrich, who is blind, has always maintained his innocence and said he was being railroaded by enemies of the peace deal. FARC-EP, the political party that emerged after the guerrillas demobilized, is demanding his immediate release, but it’s unclear if and when that might happen amid a series of appeals.

U.S. officials have suggested that Colombia’s failure to extradite Santrich might jeopardize bilateral cooperation between the two longtime allies.

Colombian President Iván Duque, who won office in 2018, campaigned on trying to overhaul the peace agreement signed by his predecessor Juan Manuel Santos. But his attempt to modify the deal earlier this year — including introducing language that might clarify extradition — was shot down by congress. Many lawmakers worried that modifying the agreement after it had been ratified would threaten the entirety of the deal.

Duque was holding an emergency meeting with justice officials and his Peace Commissioner and is expected to make a statement late Wednesday.

The U.S. Embassy in Colombia has played an unusually active role in the debate, and has been accused of canceling the visa of a lawmaker who campaigned against Duque’s reforms. The embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but on its official Twitter feed it called Martínez and Riveros “great patriots who promote the rule of law in Colombia.”

The peace deal was hailed by the international community and won Santos a Nobel Peace Prize, but it has remained controversial in Colombia, amid fears that it’s too lenient on the former guerrillas.

Since its signing, both sides have accused each other of trying to undermine the deal. The FARC say more than 120 of their demobilized members have been assassinated since the pact was inked, including one former commander this week.