Santrich Goes Free While Peace in Colombia Still Held Hostage

Former FARC guerrilla commander Jesús Santrich, imprisoned on April 9, 2018, went free on May 30. Colombian authorities had held him pending extradition to the United Sates. Their plan violated the peace agreement signed in November 2016 between FARC guerrillas and Colombia’s government.

Santrich, born Seuxis Hernández Solarte, personifies turmoil in Colombia stemming from the precarious peace process there. A specialist in communications and propaganda for the FARC (Revolutionary Forces of Colombia), Santrich was a lead FARC negotiator and spokesperson during four years of peace talks in Havana. A poet, artist, musician, and recognizable in photos with his Palestinian keffiyeh (scarf), Santrich is blind.

But for his arrest, Santrich would have occupied one of ten seats in Colombian’s congress assigned to the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, the FARC’s new peacetime political party

Having charged him with conspiracy to export cocaine to the United States, a New York court requested Santrich’s extradition. Consequently, Colombian authorities arrested him, thus prompting his 41 day hunger strike. Agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), in Colombia without apparent authorization, had generated the supposed evidence against him.

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) figures into this story. The peace agreement established the JEP and assigned it the task of determining the truth about crimes committed by former combatants on both sides. It would do so by hearing their testimony. The peace agreement gave the JEP authority to pardon or to punish them. Along with most former FARC guerrillas, Santrich had submitted himself to judgment by the JEP.

Despite having assumed that the JEP would determine his fate, Santrich now was in prison and facing extradition. The JEP assumed likewise and refused to approve Santrich’s extradition without seeing evidence that only his U.S. accusers could provide. The evidence would have to show that he committed his alleged crime after the signing of the peace agreement. The JEP exercised jurisdiction over actions of Santrich taking place before the signing but not afterwards. Without evidence proving the latter, the JEP still claimed responsibility for judging Santrich. It wouldn’t be a U.S. court.

Evidence from New York never materialized. A leaked prosecution video did circulate. The JEP on May 15 ordered Santrich’s release from Bogota’s La Picota prison.

Inside that prison Santrich quickly learned from officials there – and via a tweet from former President Alvaro Uribe – that he was going to be extradited. He attempted suicide. Late on May 17 a confused, apparently drugged Santrich showed up at the prison door in a wheel chair. Self-inflicted wounds were evident. Surrounded by dozens of police, he was re-arrested.

Now an “ordinary” Superior Tribunal had jurisdiction over Santrich. Pressured by Santrich’s lawyers and supporters, security forces transferred him to a medical intensive care unit. A new anti-Santrich video was leaked.

But Santich’s jailers had a problem. The peace agreement does say, Extradition may not be granted nor detention measures taken with the aim of extradition with regard to events or conduct covered by this system.” The “system” is the JEP.

On May 29, Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered Santrich’s release, which happened the next day. Constitutionally, the Supreme Court alone has the duty of dealing with crimes committed by members of Colombia’s Congress. Santrich, of course, is one of them.

The “main object” of Jesús Santrich’s extradition, according to one analyst, was “to make clear the government’s disregard for the [JEP], which would set off turmoil inside the FARC political party and thereby provoke rupture of the peace agreement. … Extradition of one of their most beloved leaders would make it obvious that guarantees for the former guerrillas didn’t exist.”

The Santrich case highlights the primary role of one pole of conservative Colombian politics in promoting non-implementation of the peace agreement. Strident forces led by former President Alvaro Uribe (2002 – 2010) protested the negotiations as they were happening. Later on, they harassed Juan Manuel Santos, who as Uribe’s successor as president had initiated the talks.

President Ivan Duque took office on as August 8, 2018 as Uribe’s protégée. He had campaigned to renegotiate the peace agreement. In March 2019 with Uribe’s support, he proposed legislative changes that would have disabled the JEP. Former vice president Humberto de la Calle, a Santos ally and the lead government peace negotiator, pushed back; he dismissed Duque’s proposals as “one element more in a project of demolishing the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and now the JEP.” Soon a strong congressional majority, citing the “state’s commitment” to peace, rejected the proposals.

A fissure has divided Colombian elites for generations. Uribe is heir to a landowning class and its allies who have sought political power on the basis of military force – paramilitaries included – and, at one time, ties to the Church. Santos and his allies represent a commercial, financial, and mostly urban ruling class. They see international investments as good for Colombia’s future and their own. Armed conflict doesn’t favor their purposes.

Colombian powerbrokers are tight with powerful forces in the United States. The Obama administration backed the Colombian peace process, sending special envoy Bernard Aronson to the peace talks, sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Havana for a signing of the peace agreement, and issuing congratulations following the Colombian Congress’s approval of the peace agreement. But recently the U.S. government has played favorites.

As the Colombian Congress was considering President Duque’s proposed revisions to the JEP, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker told its members U.S aid would be cut unless they curtailed powers of the JEP. Whitaker had already instructed the JEP to allow Santrich’s extradition. The U.S State Department classified the Colombian Supreme Court’s May 29 order to release Santrich as “regrettable.”

Resistance has emerged: 79 Democratic congresspersons sent a letter recently to Secretary of State Pompeo; there they criticized U.S. moves against the JEP and U.S. sniping at the peace process.

Editorializing on May 23, the New York Times lauded the peace agreement, backed the JEP, and called for implementing the peace agreement. Maybe The Times was reflecting attitudes of U.S. business internationalists and also reaching out to allies of former President Santos in Colombia.

The Times had already reported that Colombian Army leaders were pressuring soldiers to increase killings and captures and tolerate civilian deaths. Reporter Nicolas Casey had to leave Colombia following accusations from Senator María Fernanda Cabal, She belongs to a corrupt sugar-producing family and is a devotee of Uribe. Announcing Casey’s affiliation with the FARC, she denounced “fake news.”

Having bonded, the two right wing governments thus highlight one aspect of progressive struggle in Colombia that’s often overlooked. According to former FARC peace negotiator Joaquín Gómez, “One of the greatest mistakes of the FARC was to have negotiated the peace process with a government that is not sovereign.”

National sovereignty had been a key FARC goal during its long insurgency. Labor spokespersons have identified foreign participation in privatization activities and expropriation of natural resources as offenses against national sovereignty. No Colombian government authorization ever appeared for the DEA operation inside Colombia that led to Santrich’s initial arrest.

An open letter from the Alliance for Global Justice shortly afterwards is relevant: “The extradition of Colombian ex-insurgents and paramilitary leaders to the US is another means of interference with both the peace process and investigations into links between death squads and Colombia’s political and economic establishment.” The statement condemns the 60 year incarceration in the United States of former FARC leader Simón Trinidad.

Meanwhile in Colombia, the toll of former FARC guerrillas assassinated since the civil war ended is 135; the toll of social leaders killed is 702. Meanwhile, the leftist Patriotic Union, allied with the Communist Party, has joined with the left-leaning Humane Colombia party to build an electoral coalition for the future. The latter party’s leader, Gustavo Petro, finished second to Duque in the 2018 presidential election.

More articles by:

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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