Colombian official who fled corruption trial arrested in Weston

Former Colombian agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias sits in court to face a preliminary hearing on corruption charges in Bogotá on July 26, 2011. He fled to South Florida before a guilty verdict was rendered.
Former Colombian agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias sits in court to face a preliminary hearing on corruption charges in Bogotá on July 26, 2011. He fled to South Florida before a guilty verdict was rendered. AP

Two years after evading corruption charges by fleeing to South Florida, a former Colombian agriculture minister and onetime presidential candidate was arrested Wednesday morning at his home in Weston.

Andrés Felipe Arias was in federal court Wednesday afternoon with his wrists and ankles shackled for the initial appearance in extradition proceedings to send him back to Colombia.

It has been over a year and a half since Colombia first asked U.S. authorities for Arias’ extradition, and now, on the day of Colombia’s historic peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla group, the U.S. government has detained the former minister.

Arias was convicted of embezzling millions from a subsidy program created to help poor farmers. He steered the money to wealthy landowners instead. His crime, as prosecutors saw it, illustrates the dynamics at the root of Colombia’s 50-year armed conflict: a perception by some that rural areas have been shut out of economic development.

The Miami Herald has learned that Arias was able to flee to South Florida because the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá renewed his tourist visa while he was on trial for embezzling $12.5 million — despite a 2004 presidential proclamation barring foreign officials suspected of corruption from entering the country.

When it was leaked that the presiding judge had found him guilty, Arias boarded a plane for the United States, passing through U.S. customs early in the morning of June 14, 2014, without any problems.

Once in Florida, Arias hired an immigration attorney and applied for asylum. He argued that the corruption charges were politically motivated and that he had not received a fair trial.

Arias was sentenced to 17 years in prison in absentia. By the time Colombia asked for his extradition, in November 2014, the former minister was building a new life in the United States. He opened a small consulting company and rented a house in Weston with his wife and two children.

Arias was just 31 when he was appointed minister of agriculture in 2005, and his close relationship to Colombia’s then president, Álvaro Uribe, earned him the pejorative nickname “Uribito,” the diminutive of his boss’ last name.

As minister, he championed the $700 million subsidy program whose purpose was to help farmers prepare for the challenges of globalization and “reduce inequality in rural areas.”

When he launched his presidential campaign in February 2009, Arias touted the program at campaign events. But voters soon learned that wealthy families with political connections had received millions in grants. Beneficiaries included relatives of congressmen, companies owned by the richest man in Colombia, and a former beauty queen.

In July 2011, Colombia’s inspector general’s office, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by public officials, determined that Arias was responsible for “grave disciplinary failures” and banned him from politics for 16 years.

When the case went to trial in 2012, Arias’ lawyer argued that the wealthy recipients had done the defrauding.

None of the witnesses explicitly stated that elite families had been given public funds in exchange for political support, but Arias’ former vice minister accepted a plea deal. He and other ministry officials testified that Arias had closely monitored the subsidy program.

Washington apparently thought there was merit to the corruption allegations as well, at least for a time. In its 2009 Human Rights report, the State Department mentioned Arias by name in the “Official Corruption” section, stating that the former minister had been “implicated in a scandal involving inappropriate use” of the subsidies program. Arias was also referred to in subsequent reports.

But in the 2013 human rights report, which was published after the U.S. Embassy renewed Arias’ visa, there was no mention of his case.

The State Department declined to comment on Arias’ visa renewal, stating that visa records are confidential.

The department may have been concerned about the length of the 17-year sentence. In a heavily redacted diplomatic cable the Herald obtained through a public records request, dated less than two months after Arias entered the United States, the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá notes local media coverage questioning the “stiff sentence.” Arias’ sentence falls within Colombian sentencing guidelines, however, which impose lengthy sentences for corruption crimes.

At the hearing on Wednesday, Arias’ immigration lawyer, Hans Burgos, told the Herald, “Andrés Felipe Arias is an innocent man” and said the Colombian government has “violated his right to due process.”

The State Department has come under fire in recent years for failing to keep corrupt officials out of the country.

“Corruption is a driving problem in Latin America that perpetuates the cycle of poverty, violence, and weak institutions. If we have a general idea that officials in Latin American countries are involved in corrupt activity, why are we not tougher in denying them visas to the United States?” one member of the Senate subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere asked the State Department during a 2007 hearing.

Three years later, the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations urged the State Department to more aggressively revoke visas, citing the 2004 proclamation signed by President George W. Bush.

The State Department declined to provide the Herald with data on the number of times the proclamation has been invoked, saying only that it has been used “robustly.”

But Martin Moreno, the Colombian prosecutor who investigated Arias’ case, previously told the Herald he feels that Arias’ ability to move to the United States “ended up making a mockery of justice.”

Miami Herald staff writer Jim Wyss contributed to this report. Support for this article was provided by the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.