Wed, Apr 11, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Ex-FARC head’s arrest threatens peace agreement

AP, BOGOTA

FARC supporters demonstrate outside the prosecutors’ office in Bogota on Monday.

Photo: AFP

Colombia’s peace process has been rocked by the surprise arrest of a former top leader of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group on charges of trying to smuggle several tonnes of cocaine into the US.

The arrest on Monday of Seuxis Hernandez, a blind former peace negotiator best known by his alias Jesus Santrich, played into fears among many Colombians that the former guerrillas have not cut ties to the country’s flourishing criminal underworld.

It also triggered an exchange of angry recriminations between conservative critics of the peace process and supporters of the disbanded group.

More than 100 former rebels and FARC sympathizers gathered late on Monday outside the heavily guarded prosecutors’ bunker where 51-year-old Santrich was being held to demand his release.

Waving white flags emblazoned with the red rose symbol of the former rebels’ political movement, some shouted “freedom” and denounced what they called an act of judicial sabotage by the government and its US backers.

Riot police flanked by a water cannon watched quietly, while inside Santrich was believed to have initiated a hunger strike to demand his release, according to his lawyer.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos defended the arrest on a US warrant as necessary to maintain the credibility of the peace accord, which Colombians overwhelmingly consider too generous to rebels responsible for atrocities committed during five decades of bloody, armed conflict.

“My hand won’t tremble to authorize the extradition,” Santos said in a nationally televised address, in which he tried to reassure demobilized fighters that they have nothing to fear as long as they uphold their commitments under the 2016 peace accord. “This is what the Colombian people demand. In this aspect, there can’t be any room for tolerance or weakness.”

Santrich, who joined the guerrilla movement in his 20s and gradually rose into its central command structure, was one of the first rebel leaders to bet on peace.

He went to Norway in 2012 to begin negotiations with Colombia’s government and then participated in talks that continued the next four years in Cuba, where he earned a reputation as being a hard-line ideologue.

He was picked up Monday at a Bogota residence on charges filed in a New York federal court alleging he conspired with three others to smuggle several tonnes of cocaine into the US with a wholesale value of US$15 million, or US$320 million when broken up and sold on US streets.

According to an International Criminal Police Organization notice, Santrich met with cocaine buyers at his residence on Nov. 2 last year — one day after one of his coconspirators delivered a 5kg sample of the narcotic to them at a hotel lobby in Bogota.

During the meeting and subsequent negotiations, he and his coconspirators allegedly discussed plans for a 10 tonne drug shipment to the US, boasting that they had access to cocaine laboratories and US-registered airplanes to produce and transport the drugs inside Colombia, the world’s largest producer of the illegal narcotic.

Even before details of the arrest were known, FARC leaders condemned it as a setup that would undermine almost 7,000 demobilized rebel fighters’ trust in the peace process.

“This is the worst moment that the peace process has gone through,” said a former rebel leader known as Ivan Marquez, who served as chief negotiator during the peace talks.

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