Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos has said he will seek to prevent US extradition for leaders of guerrilla group the FARC, in a move that will stoke the country's vociferous opposition, but which the United States might be open to.
"No one is going to turn in their weapons to go die in a North American prison. That's completely unrealistic," Santos said in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais. Colombia's President will personally work with the United States to find a solution, he added.
When questioned as to how guerrilla leaders might be punished within Colombia, Santos was less direct, stating the difficulty of drawing a line between justice and peace, and adding that the former should not impede the latter. Santos left open the possibility of house arrest instead of prison for guerrilla leaders, calling it "something that we could bring ourselves to agreement on."
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The Santos administration has officially been in peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest left-wing guerrilla group, for more than two years. How rebel leaders should be held accountable for alleged acts of terrorism and drug trafficking committed during more than 50 years of conflict has been a major issue overshadowing the talks. Complicating the matter are standing extradition orders for multiple FARC leaders, primarily related to drug trafficking, as well as several leaders already imprisoned in the United States.
While US officials have yet to speak on Santos' comments, it is plausible they would consider flexibility on these extradition orders. Not only does Colombia represent a key regional ally and major recipient of US aid and investment, but the United States has already shown signs of softening its approach to the guerrillas. US Special Envoy Bernard Aronson reportedly met with members of the FARC delegation on both February 28 and March 1, with few details yet emerging from the behind-closed-doors meeting in Cuba.
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However, while the US may be willing to work with Santos, he still faces opposition at home from the vocal ultra-conservative opposition led by former-President Alvaro Uribe, who recently visited the United States in an apparent attempt to whip up opposition to the talks among US lawmakers.
As part of Colombia's proposed peace process, any deal agreed between the FARC and the government must also be voted on by the Colombian people, making the public relations battle extremely important and US input potentially influential.