Authorities in Colombia have denied a drug trafficker’s attempts to pass himself off as a demobilizing FARC guerrilla, but released a guerrilla wanted for drug trafficking in the United States. The contrasting cases highlight the difficulties Colombia faces in legally untangling the drug trade from the conflict, a process that if not handled carefully will provide ammunition to those seeking to undermine the peace process.
Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo has confirmed that convicted drug trafficker Gildardo Rodríguez Herrera, alias “El Señor de la Camisa Roja” (“The Red-Shirted Man”), has been struck off a list of demobilizing members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), reported El Tiempo.
Prior to Jaramillo’s statement, El Tiempo uncovered how Rodriguez’s name had appeared as a recognized guerrilla on the lists turned over to the government by the FARC, despite currently serving a 30-year prison sentence for drug trafficking, criminal conspiracy and murder.
According to El Tiempo, Rodriguez is believed to have spent a brief stint in the ranks of the FARC’s 53rd Front between the ages of 16 and 18, but later rose to become a leading member of the now defunct drug trafficking network, the Norte del Valle Cartel (NDVC). During his time with the NDVC, Rodriguez allegedly collaborated with the FARC in drug trafficking activities, but was never a member of the organization.
Rodriguez was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges in 2008 and received a reduced sentence for cooperating with the authorities. However, after his release in 2016, he was arrested reentering Colombia to face new charges in his home country.
Rodriguez is the fourth case of a drug trafficker failing to pass themselves off as a guerrilla, according to El Tiempo. Among the other cases, one trafficker paid corrupt officials to fabricate a guerrilla backstory, while another claimed to be a member of a FARC militia and support network.
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While the four traffickers have been denied demobilization benefits, an actual guerrilla member that was facing extradition to the United States to face drug trafficking charges has been released.
Julio Enrique Lemos, alias Náder, was captured outside of a demobilization zone in February after leaving the FARC camp to seek hospital treatment for hepatitis B, reported El Espectador. Lemos was wanted for drug trafficking and kidnapping and had an outstanding order for his extradition to the United States.
The FARC argued Lemos should be released under the terms of the peace accord, which states that extradition orders or the detainment of guerrillas for the purpose of extradition for crimes committed during the conflict should not be executed.
However, prosecutors argued that he should be detained as there is still no law legalizing this stipulation, according to El Espectador. Supreme Court judges agreed with the guerrillas and ruled Lemos should be released to a transition zone in north Colombia.
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For decades, the FARC used the drug trade to finance their insurgency, with their involvement ranging from a simple tax on coca production to international trafficking. This blurring of the lines between organized crime and armed revolution has presented a major challenge for the transitional justice process that will be a key aspect of the FARC’s demobilization.
As part of the agreement struck between the FARC and the government, guerrillas involved in drug trafficking will be pardoned as long as the drug trade profits went towards the rebels’ war efforts and not to individual guerrillas. This compromise was a key component of the deal that convinced the guerrillas to lay down their arms, but it has proven controversial with opponents, who say it is the equivalent to granting amnesty to drug traffickers.
Figures such as Rodriguez are a prime example of the difficulties in untangling the war from organized crime due to his alleged collaboration with the FARC in trafficking activities. While it is positive that the government successfully rooted out his bogus claim, questions remain as to why the FARC approved his name on the list. And if any other such figures slip through the net, it will provide opportunities for opponents of the peace process to attack the transitional justice process.
The leading opponent of the peace process, former President Álvaro Uribe, who has long referred to the FARC as “narco-terrorists” and denounced them as the “biggest drug cartel in the world,” has been especially critical of the amnesty granted for drug trafficking and would likely seek to capitalize on any such cases to undermine the transitional justice process.
The irony of Uribe’s protests is that the demobilization process he launched with the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), saw numerous major drug traffickers trying and in some cases succeeding to pass themselves off as counter-insurgents, even purchasing paramilitary blocs off AUC leaders for the purpose. However, Uribe has demonstrated a remarkable imperviousness to accusations of hypocrisy throughout his opposition to the peace process, and this is unlikely to affect the views of his supporters.
The Lemos case not only highlights the difficulties of this process from the other side of the divide — genuine guerrillas heavily involved in drug trafficking — it also demonstrates the urgency for establishing the legal framework for the peace agreement, a process complicated by recent rulings by the Constitutional Court that could result in extensive delays as peace legislation is debated in congress.
While Lemos was an unusual case as he was captured outside the transition zone, if these issues are not resolved before the FARC leave their transition, many more guerrillas could find themselves in a similar legal limbo. Others could decide that it is not worth persisting with the peace process in the absence of legal guarantees, and they may simply return to the underworld.
President Juan Manuel Santos has responded to this political pressure by recently signing 34 decrees in just three days in an effort to push through policies to advance the peace process ahead of the end of a temporary mandate granted to the president by Congress that allows him to bypass the legislative body.
The decrees covered a range of issues, from establishing a new timetable for the stalled demobilization of the FARC to imposing measures limiting the time other bodies can spend revising peace process legislation. Key to the FARC’s judicial status was one decree in particular, which seeks to avoid situations such as that in the case of Lemos by suspending arrest warrants for guerrillas leaving the transition zones until they are processed by the transitional justice system.
At this stage in the peace process, such legal and political battles could be the key to preventing the FARC’s criminal history from derailing the peace process and the guerrilla demobilization.