Colombia’s peace process has come under further strain after a court ordered one of the country’s best-known Marxist guerrillas to be freed from jail, prompting the attorney-general to resign and the president to voice his alarm at the decision.
In one of the most eventful days since the state signed a historic peace agreement with Marxist guerrillas in 2016, President Iván Duque made a late-night address to the nation, saying the government “shared the indignation of the Colombian people” at the court’s decision to free Jesús Santrich, a longtime member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).
He said there was “conclusive and unmistakable proof” that Mr Santrich had engaged in drug trafficking after the peace deal was signed, as US authorities have alleged. The court’s decision not to extradite Mr Santrich will come as a blow to Washington, which views Colombia as its main regional ally particularly at a time when it is trying to unseat Nicolás Maduro from the presidency in Venezuela.
The attorney-general Néstor Humberto Martínez made a similarly impassioned speech, saying he was resigning because his “conscience” and his “devotion to the rule of law” could not allow him to accept the court’s decision.
He painted a bleak picture of Colombia’s future in which magistrates turned a blind eye to kidnapping, extortion and drug-trafficking in their eagerness to exonerate former Farc guerrillas of crimes committed during the country’s brutal half-century civil conflict. “All this in the name of peace!” he said.
On Wednesday, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) — a tribunal set up to hear cases related to the conflict — ordered the release of Mr Santrich, a Farc fighter for more than a decade before becoming one of the key negotiators of the peace agreement. He has been in custody for more than a year, accused by the US of conspiring to export tonnes of cocaine to the US. Washington wants to extradite him but the JEP decided there was not enough evidence. He has always maintained his innocence, saying he has been framed.
Mr Santrich is one of the most recognisable former Farc guerrillas. In his fifties and almost completely blind, he always appears in public in dark sunglasses. His real name is Zeuxis Pausias Hernández Solarte and he took his nom de guerre from a friend killed by state operatives.
The JEP’s order to free him comes as a blow not only to US authorities and Mr Duque but also to the state prosecutor’s office, which has been locked in a power struggle with the JEP over jurisdiction in cases involving former Farc guerrillas.
A highly controversial attorney-general, Mr Martínez had been under intense pressure to resign over his connections to the massive Odebrecht scandal, a corruption case that has swept the region, ensnaring presidents, politicians and business leaders. The Santrich case highlights just how far apart the JEP and Mr Duque’s rightwing government are in their approaches to dealing with the aftermath of the conflict.
The JEP regards itself as an objective tribunal but many on the political right — led by former president Álvaro Uribe — see it as a leftwing body stuffed with Farc-friendly magistrates. Mr Uribe has said it should be scrapped and replaced.
The row comes at a critical time for Colombia. About 1.2m migrants have spilled over the border from neighbouring Venezuela. Drug trafficking is on the rise and demobilised guerrillas are threatening to take up arms again. Pockets of Colombia are still under the control of guerrillas and paramilitaries and there have been assassinations of social leaders, trade unionists and human rights activists.
The peace deal with the Farc was agreed in 2016 by then-president Juan Manuel Santos. Colombians narrowly voted against it in a referendum but Mr Santos made minor amendments and succeeded in pushing it through parliament.
Responding to the JEP’s decision, Mr Uribe said Colombia had been plunged into “a deep institutional crisis, perhaps without precedent in the past 60 years”.
If Mr Santrich is freed in the coming days, he could enter Congress. Before his arrest last April, he had been due to take up one of 10 parliamentary seats awarded to the Farc under the terms of the peace accords.
“He’ll be the first person in Colombia to go from jail to Congress, and not the other way around,” said Sergio Guzmán, director of local consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis.
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