The Colombian FARC rebel group’s declaration that they want a political ideologue, currently serving a 60-year prison term in the US, to act as one of their main negotiators may be just the first obstacle in what will likely be a rough road in laying the groundwork for peace talks.
A group of spokespeople for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, Cuba, named three of the five negotiators they hope to send to Norway in October to engage in peace talks with the Colombian government to end that country’s nearly 50-year old civil conflict. These nominees include a former member of the Caribbean Bloc, currently in jail in the United States: Ricardo Palmera, alias “Simon Trinidad.”
Trinidad was an ideologue who stood out among the FARC ranks because he came from the upper middle class rather than the peasantry. Before he joined the rebels at age 36, in 1987, Trinidad worked as a university professor, then a banker.
As a guerrilla leader, Trinidad rose through the ranks quickly, in part because of his business acumen. This included using information he’d gained as a banker to target members of wealthy families for kidnappings.
In one sense, his nomination to the delegation is not a surprise. During the 1998-2002 peace talks, Trinidad acted as the FARC’s pointman on economic issues and land reform.
But following those talks, Trinidad was injured and traveled to Ecuador where he was arrested in 2004. At the time, he was the most high-level FARC commander ever captured during Colombia’s 40-year war against the rebels.
He was later extradited to the US and convicted of participating in the kidnapping of three US Pentagon contractors in 2003. In 2008, he was sentenced to 60 years in a high-security prison in Colorado. He would have likely received a life sentence, but that is banned under the terms of the extradition agreement between Colombia and the US.
One of Trinidad’s defense lawyers has said that, in legal terms, it is “impossible” for Trinidad to participate in Colombia’s peace talks. President Juan Manuel Santos said he has not yet discussed the issue of Trinidad’s release with the US, adding, “The process needs to be realistic…Some things will be possible and others won’t.”
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At first glance, the FARC’s request to have Trinidad on the negotiating team may seem like a deliberate effort to stonewall the process before it has even begun. But their request may not be so unreasonable and appears to be an indirect way of establishing the ground rules of what will be one of the central issues of this process: extradition.
There are clear indications the US would like to get their hands on other guerrilla leaders to prosecute them. In 2006, the Southern District of New York issued a lengthy indictment on drug trafficking charges of more than 50 FARC leaders, some of whom were part of the Secretariat. Just two years later, the Colombian presidency extradited to the United States 14 top level right-wing paramilitary leaders — all of whom had been indicted separately on drug trafficking charges — who were negotiating a peace deal with the government.
So the issue for the FARC is trust. They do not want to enter a negotiation only to find themselves on an airplane to the United States and facing down 60 years in prison. Putting Trinidad’s name on the table means Colombian and US authorities will have to make a decision on how to treat the FARC leaders: as political actors or as criminals.
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