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LATIN AMERICA | 10-07-2019 16:20

Colombian court orders arrest of missing ex-FARC leader

Colombian President Duque responds with a denunciation of FARC

Colombia's Supreme Court issued an arrest order for a blind ex-rebel leader wanted in the U.S. on charges of conspiring to traffic cocaine after he failed to appear Tuesday for questioning in a case that has touched a nerve in Colombia.

Seuxis Hernandez, widely known as Jesus Santrich, went missing in late June after abandoning his security detail while visiting a transition zone for former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels making the shift to civilian life under a 2016 peace accord.

There was no order for his capture at the time, but the United Nations peace monitoring mission expressed concern for his safety while others openly speculated that he fled in order to escape potential prosecution.

The court order included a request to the international police agency Interpol to locate, arrest and extradite Santrich back to Colombia. 

Santrich's lawyers said in court Tuesday they have had no contact with him but believed he likely skipped his scheduled court date over concerns for his life. Over 100 former ex-combatants have been killed since the peace accord's signing.

Colombian president Iván Duque applauded the court's decision, calling Santrich's disappearance a "derision of justice." 

"We will be relentless with those that aim to continue with these criminal activities, those that aim to continue in recidivism and those that aim to continue to make a joke of the rule of law," Duque said. 

The case has inflamed tensions over the peace accord to end Latin America's longest-running conflict.

Many Colombians were incensed when the country's nascent peace tribunal ordered Santrich released after a year behind bars. He was later allowed to take a seat in congress as stipulated in the peace agreement, and the sight of the former combatant in a house of power further angered his critics.

Members of the political party formed by former FARC rebels denounced Santrich's failure to appear and urged him to comply with the accords.

"Those who don't abide by the agreement should have to deal with the consequences," said Carlos Lozada, a former rebel who is now a senator.

Santrich was an early proponent of peace who served in a key role during four years of negotiations held in Cuba with the Colombian government.

He denied U.S. charges that he conspired to ship 10 tons of cocaine and promised to comply with the legal system as the Supreme Court investigated the case. Yet the former rebel leader has called the drug-trafficking accusations a plot by the United States and the Colombian government to torpedoe the peace agreement's implementation.

Colombia's Special Jurisdiction for Peace ruled in May that Santrich should be released, contending authorities hadn't provided conclusive evidence to prove the alleged crimes took place after the accord signing. The agreement allows rebels to avoid extradition and jail time for crimes that happened before the signing if they provide a full account of any wrongdoings and make reparations to victims.

Santrich was quickly put behind bars again as part of a new investigation based on additional information provided by U.S. authorities. But the Supreme Court later ordered him freed a second time, saying that because he is a lawmaker, Santrich is afforded limited immunity and only the highest court can rule on his case.

The son of two school teachers, Santrich joined a local youth communist group as a student and entered the guerrilla movement in his early 20s. He gradually rose through the rebel ranks to eventually join the central high command.

Santrich is one of a handful of high-profile former rebel leaders who initially complied with the peace process but then apparently changed their minds. The majority of the 13,000 former rebels who chose peace are fulfilling the accord's stipulations, authorities have said. A relatively small but still important faction has returned to arms.

- TIMES/AFP/AP

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