Warlord involved in hundreds of murders sent to Colombia after serving drug sentence in the US - Hindustan Times

Warlord involved in hundreds of murders sent to Colombia after serving drug sentence in the US

AP |
Feb 28, 2024 02:41 AM IST

Warlord involved in hundreds of murders sent to Colombia after serving drug sentence in the US

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombian warlord Salvatore Mancuso was sent to his native country Tuesday after serving a drug trafficking sentence in the United States and being denied several requests to be sent to Italy, where he also has citizenship.

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Mancuso arrived in Bogota’s El Dorado Airport on a charter flight that also carried dozens of Colombians who were deported from the U.S. after illegally crossing the southern border. Mancuso was quickly taken into police custody, wearing a green helmet and a bullet proof vest.

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Human rights organizations and government officials in Colombia hope that Mancuso will cooperate with the justice system and provide information about hundreds of crimes that took place when paramilitary groups fought leftist rebels in rural Colombia in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“This event marks an important step towards reconciliation and the construction of a lasting peace in Colombia,” said Fernando Garcia, the director of Colombia’s national immigration service.

Mancuso, 59, was one of the leaders of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary group founded by cattle ranchers who fought against leftist rebels during one of the most violent stretches of Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict.

He will remain in prison in Colombia, where courts have judged him responsible for more than 1,500 acts of murder and disappearances. He will attempt to get a reduced sentence, and possibly a release from prison, from a transitional justice system created by Colombia’s 2016 peace deal.

Victims of the nation’s conflict are hoping that Mancuso helps shed light on hundreds of murders and forced disappearances carried out by paramilitary fighters, including extrajudicial executions where victims were buried in mass graves.

In multiple hearings with Colombian judges, including some by teleconference while in U.S. custody, the former warlord has spoken of his dealings with politicians, and of the potential involvement of high-ranking politicians in war crimes.

But his extradition to the United States in 2008 had slowed down investigations.

“When Mancuso was extradited, truth was extradited, as well as justice and reparations for victims,” said Jose Melendez, a human rights lawyer who represents war victims in northern Colombia.

“We welcome him. And want him to tell the truth about the multinational companies, the businessmen and the government ministers who helped with the creation of paramilitary groups.”

Mancuso was born to a wealthy family in the department of Cordoba in northwest Colombia, and was a prosperous cattle rancher.

He began to collaborate with the Colombian army in the early 90s after his family was threatened by rebel groups who demanded extortion payments.

Mancuso quickly transitioned from providing intel to the military to leading operations against leftist rebels, and by the late 90s he had become one of the most powerful paramilitary leaders in Colombia.

In 2003 he joined a peace process under which paramilitary leaders demobilized in exchange for reduced sentences.

But he was extradited to the United States five years later during the administration of President Alvaro Uribe, along with 13 other paramilitary leaders who were wanted for drug trafficking in the United States.

Critics said that the surprise extradition was part of an effort to stop Mancuso and other paramilitary leaders from discussing their ties with Colombia’s political establishment.

Mancuso was sentenced in 2015 for guiding more than 130 tons of cocaine to U.S. soil, as he turned to drug trafficking to finance his armed group.

He completed his 12-year-sentence in 2020, and had been held at an immigration detention center for the past three years, as officials decided where to send the former paramilitary leader.

Mancuso is the son of an Italian immigrant. His lawyers had requested he be deported to Italy, where he is a citizen, arguing his life would be in danger in Colombia.

U.S. officials decided instead to send Mancuso to Colombia, whose government requested his extradition in 2020, arguing that his return to the country was vital for the investigation of war crimes.

“The problem Mancuso has is that if he talks too much he could get killed,” said Laura Bonilla, a researcher of Colombia’s conflict for the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.

President Gustavo Petro's administration already has given Mancuso, prior to his arrival, a special designation to play a role in peace negotiations despite being in prison.

The government is currently engaged in peace talks with two left wing rebel groups who were not part of a 2016 peace deal. It has also tried unsuccessfully to start peace talks with the AGC, a right wing group that was set up following the disarmament of Mancuso’s paramilitary group.

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