Fight over US extradition leads to resignations of top Colombian officials

Fight over US extradition leads to resignations of top Colombian officials
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Colombia's top two law enforcement officials resigned this week in protest of a special tribunal’s decision not to extradite a former guerrilla leader to the United States over drug trafficking charges.

Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez resigned Wednesday, followed by Justice Minister Gloria María Borrero Thursday, roiling country that is the top U.S. ally in the region.

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At issue was the tribunal’s decision not to admit Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) video evidence against Seuxis Paucias Hernández, known as “Jesús Santrich,” a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in an extradition bid supported by Colombian President Iván Duque.

The tribunal, known as a Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), was convened to prosecute FARC leaders who engaged in illicit activities after the 2016 peace deal between FARC and the central government came into effect.

Prosecutors presented six recordings, presumably filmed by the DEA in 2017, as evidence that Santrich had engaged in trafficking after the deal.

But the JEP ruled against extradition to the United States, saying there was no evidence to prove the videos were recorded after the peace deal came into effect, and ordered Santrich's liberation.

The U.S. Embassy in Bogotá called the decision "regrettable," and called on Colombian authorities to appeal it.

"No part of these developing events, nor possible future decisions, change the fact that a Grand Jury of the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York accused Mr. Santrich of allegedly conspiring to send 10,000 kilograms of cocaine to the United States between June of 2017 and April of 2018," reads a statement from the embassy, released in Spanish.

The JEP's decision and the subsequent resignations have rocked Colombia, where security cooperation with the United States is seen by many as a pillar of stability.

Colombia is also the main staging point for humanitarian assistance to Venezuela.

"The Embassy underlines the importance and the essence of the extradition relationship between Colombia and the United States, which has promoted the interests of justice in both nations for decades," reads the U.S. statement.

Hours after Martinez's resignation, a seventh recording, not reviewed by the JEP, was released to Colombian network RCN

It shows Santrich, along with Marlon Marín, a nephew of former FARC leader Iván Márquez, allegedly settling a deal for 10,000 kilograms of cocaine with two DEA agents posing as members of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel.

In the video, Santrich, Marín and the agents also discuss alleged business ties with the president of Suriname.

The DEA did not return a request for comment.

Santrich and Marín were arrested together in 2018 for plotting the alleged deal with the Sinaloa Cartel; Santrich fought the charges and extradition in Colombia, while Marín turned himself over to the DEA and became a protected witness in the United States.

Santrich apparently attempted to kill himself in prison on Friday, according to Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo, but was treated by jail staff and as of Friday afternoon was considered out of danger.

“I don’t know if he tried to commit suicide or if somebody hurt him. He is inside his isolation cell,” said Gustavo Gallardo, Santrich's attorney.

Santrich is due to remain in Colombia at least until the government appeal on his extradition is decided.

The Colombian Embassy in Washington made available the text of a speech by Duque on the resignation of Martínez.

"As indicated by the Attorney General, there is conclusive and unequivocal evidence with respect to the commission of the crime of drug trafficking after December 1, 2016," he said.

"As President of the Republic, I have been, am and will always be ready to sign the extradition of alias 'Jesus Santrich' and of any other accused for drug trafficking, in accordance with the Constitution and the Law," Duque added.