Colombia's recent approval of the extradition of a rebel leader to the United States appears to contradict previous pledges and may complicate the nation's ongoing peace talks with Colombia's largest guerrilla group the FARC.
President Juan Manuel Santos and Justice Minister Yesid Reyes reportedly approved the extradition of Eduardo Cabrera, alias "El Cura," on March 9. Cabrera was a leader of the FARC's Southern Bloc, and was already serving a 16-year sentence in Colombia for charges related to trafficking close to 1,500 kilos of cocaine per month from southern Caqueta department, regional news site Infobae reported. He is also the brother of Jose Benito Cabrera, alias "Fabian Ramirez", who is on the FARC's negotiating team in Havana.
Cabrera's approved extradition comes one week after President Santos said he would seek to prevent US extradition for FARC leaders. In his previous statements, Santos said extraditing FARC members would likely dissuade the guerrillas from agreeing to the peace deal currently being negotiated in Havana. FARC leaders themselves have sought to frame alleged terrorism and drug trafficking activities as political in nature and said they would not agree to any prison time in Colombia or abroad.
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The day before Cabrera's extradition was reportedly approved, Colombia's Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre Lynett was quoted as saying peace negotiations had advanced past "the point of no return." Meanwhile, meetings between Colombian generals and FARC leaders were heralded as the possible starting point for a bilateral ceasefire.
However, the Colombian government's apparent backtracking on the extradition issue is a stark reminder that a rift remains between the actual status of the peace talks, and the scenario that the Colombian government would like to present.
The extradition issue could yet prove to be a real deal breaker for the FARC. Numerous FARC leaders are wanted in the United States, mainly in connection with drug trafficking, and some are already imprisoned there. But without assurance that they will not be extradited to the US, Colombia's FARC leaders are unlikely to fully commit to a peace deal. As Santos himself has previously said, "No one is going to turn in their weapons to go die in a North American prison."
Prior to El Cura's case, FARC leaders were likely already wary of any promises made by the Colombian government -- especially after the recent threat to extradite paramilitary leader alias "Julian Bolivar" to the United States, who had already served prison time domestically and participated in a paramilitary demobilization process.
While Santos may be able to claim his promised moratorium on extraditing FARC leaders to the United States will only come into effect after the signing of a peace deal, Cabrera's extradition hurts the chances of that ever happening.
UPDATE: Colombia has since blocked El Cura's extradition to the US, reported Colombian news wire Colprensa on March 9. The government had done so in a resolution signed on March 6, which stated that Cabrera would not be handed over to the US until he had completed his sentence in Colombia.
Moving forward, it looks like Santos is not backtracking -- instead, he is sticking to his guns, and sending a strong message to the FARC negotiating team that the Colombian government may be willing to put the US extradition requests for the guerrillas leaders aside. But the FARC undoubtedly will want a stronger guarantee that the potential extradition of FARC leaders won't be determined on a case-by-case basis. And there is also the question of how the US -- which now has an envoy at the peace talks -- will respond if Colombia chooses to ignore its extradition requests.
Elyssa Pachico updated this article.