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Warlord’s release from US prison ups tension with Colombia

August 13, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this May 13, 2008 file photo, Colombian paramilitary warlord Salvatore Mancuso is escorted by U.S. DEA agents upon his arrival to Opa-locka, Florida. A legal battle is quietly brewing in the U.S. in 2020 over Colombia’s request that this former paramilitary warlord be sent home after completing his drug sentence in the U.S. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)
FILE - In this May 13, 2008 file photo, Colombian paramilitary warlord Salvatore Mancuso is escorted by U.S. DEA agents upon his arrival to Opa-locka, Florida. A legal battle is quietly brewing in the U.S. in 2020 over Colombia’s request that this former paramilitary warlord be sent home after completing his drug sentence in the U.S. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)

MIAMI (AP) — A last-minute battle is unfolding over the fate of a former paramilitary warlord who the Colombian government wants returned following a long drug sentence in U.S. prison.

Salvatore Mancuso, the top commander of a since-disbanded group of right-wing militias, completed a 12-year cocaine trafficking sentence in March.

He remains in U.S. custody as Colombia — where courts have judged him responsible for more than 1,500 acts of murder or forced disappearance — fights a U.S. order that would send him to Italy, where he also has citizenship.

Mancuso’s lawyers contend he would be killed if he returns to a South American country that has struggled to heal from decades of bloody conflict. They argue he has already fulfilled his obligations under a 2003 peace deal he negotiated, which caps prison terms at eight years for paramilitary bosses who confess their crimes.

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The many victims Mancuso left behind say at stake is the justice that has long been denied them. Colombian officials also complain that denying their request that Mancusco be deported back home would be a high-profile snub to a staunch ally that suffered a decades-long civil conflict that left 260,000 dead and millions more displaced. The carnage was made worse by U.S. demand for Colombian cocaine, which funded illegal armed groups including Mancuso’s United Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC.

Successive conservative governments have sent several thousand Colombians to face drug trafficking charges in the U.S. Mancuso is among the highest profile, having directed the manufacture and shipment of more than 138,000 kilograms of cocaine, according to his U.S. plea agreement.

“Removing him to Italy would be a repugnant betrayal for victims” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch. “If the Colombian government is honestly committed to justice for atrocity crimes, it should exhaust all legal avenues to take Mancuso back to Colombia, hold him to account and prevent this humiliation to victims.”

The fight underscores the unfinished business of the paramilitary peace process, known as Justice and Peace, that led to the demobilization of 30,000 right-wing fighters but fell way short of its ambitious goal of truth telling and reconciliation.

Those wounds resurfaced this month when Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered the arrest of former President Álvaro Uribe as it investigates whether he helped bribe witnesses to keep a lid on suspicions that have long swirled about his own relationship with paramilitary groups.

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In 2008, the far-right Uribe stealthily extradited Mancuso and 13 other warlords to face drug charges in the U.S. His critics say the shock move, an apparent peace accord violation, was an attempt to silence the men just as they began to reveal secrets about their crimes and politician collaborators — including Uribe, who as a governor in the 1990s backed the creation of legal, armed groups to protect ranchers’ land from leftist guerrilla fighters.

“With me they extradited the truth,” Mancuso told Colombian media shortly after his arrival in the U.S. in 2008.

On April 16, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ordered Mancuso’s removal to Italy, according to two people close to Mancuso who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private administrative proceeding.

But that deportation didn’t happen. In June, U.S prosecutors requested on behalf of their Colombian counterparts that the 55-year-old Mancuso be extradited to Colombia to serve a 27-year sentence for the 1997 kidnappings of two relatives of a top leftist rebel commander, according to U.S. court records. Armed AUC fighters dressed as Colombian police carried out one abduction at a flower shop while, at the same time in a separate operation, commandos posing as prospective home buyers raided the residence of the other victim.

Mancuso, who according to the extradition request was in phone contact with one of the captors right after the raids, later took responsibility for the kidnappings during the peace process. Both captives were later killed.

Colombia withdrew its extradition request last month and the U.S. case was closed. While the government gave no reason for its sudden reversal, it appears that Mancuso’s Miami-based attorney, Joaquin Perez, outmaneuvered prosecutors.

Last year, a judge in the capital, Bogota, granted Mancuso probation in Colombia. The judge said Mancuso’s years in U.S. prison satisfied the requirements of the Justice and Peace law, which allows alternative sentences of up to eight years to be served abroad. She cancelled the arrest orders on July 15; Colombia withdrew its extradition request five days later.

But the country’s president still says he wants Mancuso returned and prosecutors still seek his arrest for other crimes, though they aren’t recognized as offenses under U.S. law because they stem from his position atop AUC’s chain of command — not specific orders he gave.

The Colombian chief prosecutor’s office said Tuesday that it continues working to seek Mancuso’s extradition. In a statement, it said a second extradition request depended on a judge handling a case in which Mancuso is suspected of money laundering that occurred after his demobilization. In 2018, the judge suspended proceedings in the case.

Mancuso’s apparently solid legal standing hasn’t stopped Colombian officials from demanding his arrest. And in a country with a notoriously weak, corrupt and maze-like judiciary, it doesn’t take much for a freelancing judge to issue an arrest order.

Colombian President Iván Duque has said the time Mancuso served in the U.S. for drug trafficking cannot be credited against his sentences for “crimes against humanity” back home.

“The second he steps on Italian soil, I will personally make a request to the International Criminal Court that he be tried for these crimes,” Duque said in a recent interview with Bogota’s Semana magazine.

Some critics believe Duque’s government may just be going through the motions.

Opposition Sen. Iván Cepeda said Duque — whose political mentor is Uribe and whose supporters include politicians who were jailed for ties to the AUC — has little to gain from the warlord’s return.

“You have to be really naive to believe that an involuntary bureaucratic mistake is what is blocking the return of the person who knows the most about the history of the paramilitaries,” said Cepeda, who has traveled to the U.S. to meet Mancuso on behalf of victims.

The leftist Cepeda, who is Uribe’s top accuser and whose father was killed by soldiers in coordination with paramilitaries, pledges to hold congressional hearings about how in his view Colombia bungled the extradition request.

Formed as self-defense forces by wealthy ranchers in the 1980s to counter leftist rebel extortion and kidnapping, the militias seized control of much of Colombia’s Caribbean coast in the late 1990s, killing thousands and stealing millions of acres of land while wresting control of lucrative drug routes. In 2001, the U.S. designated the AUC a foreign terror organization.

Mancuso has expressed more remorse than other paramilitary leaders and an eagerness to make amends with his former battlefield enemies — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — who signed their own peace agreement with the government in 2016.

His sophistication — he studied English at the University of Pittsburgh — has always distinguished him from the other rural warlords. Robert Spelke, a retired federal narcotics prosecutor who led proceedings against the warlords, described Mancuso as “very bright, very personable” and a cooperative witness who was committed to telling the truth. Spelke spent over 200 hours interviewing Mancuso and recalled once when the Colombian tearfully broke down as he recounted a paramilitary massacre of civilians.

“I know what these guys did,” said Spelke. “But when you put yourself in their shoes — It was a nasty war. I’d like to think I’d do things differently, but if the FARC was killing my family, stealing my cattle...”

Mancuso’s eagerness to talk has already shaken Colombia’s politics.

His boast in 2005 that a third of Colombia’s congress was elected with paramilitary support triggered a wave of judicial investigations that ended with dozens of elected officials behind bars, including Uribe’s senator cousin.

His cooperation with the Justice and Peace process continued after he reached the U.S., where he did more than 300 video conferences with Colombian investigators and victims.

In a symbolic gesture that shocked many Colombians, Mancuso spoke by phone last month with the FARC’s former top commander, Rodrigo Londono. The one-time adversaries united in pledging their support for peace, reconciliation and support for millions of victims.

That candor is what got Mancuso extradited to the U.S. in the first place — and endangers his life should he be returned, said Jaime Paeres, his Colombia-based attorney. Several family members have already received threats and last month Paeres filed a complaint with Colombia’s chief prosecutor alleging he was the intended target of an attack by 35 armed men who raided a ranch adjacent to where he was staying.

“Mancuso wants to return to Colombia. But it’s us, his lawyers and friends, and even some authorities, who have told him not to come back,” Paeres told The Associated Press. “I have no doubt they will kill him if he comes.”

With the U.S. order that he be sent to his father’s native Italy, Colombian officials have launched a last-ditch lobbying effort.

Colombia’s Ambassador in Washington, Francisco Santos, in recent weeks has met with U.S. officials in the White House as well as the State and Justice Departments to try and block his transfer to Italy, according to a senior Colombian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks.

The State Department and White House wouldn’t comment. A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that the agency took custody of Mancuso, who it referred to only as a “Colombian national,” from federal marshals on July 21 and that he’s now awaiting removal. ICE declined to provide details, citing operational security.

While extradition of Colombian drug lords has helped relieve pressure on the country’s investigators, it’s far rarer for Colombia to seek arrests beyond its borders.

But Mancuso’s value is unique. If the famously voluble warlord returns, he’d surely divulge uncomfortable truths that many Colombians haven’t wanted to hear, said Cepeda, the leftist lawmaker.

“A lot of the truth is already known,” Cepeda said. “But there’s a lot more to come.”

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman