MIAMI (AP) – A last-minute battle has erupted over the future of former paramilitary leader Salvador Mancuso, who the Colombian government wants to be sent back to the country now that he has served a lengthy sentence for drug trafficking in the United States.

Mancuso remains in custody in the United States, where he completed a 12-year prison sentence for cocaine trafficking in March. Colombia is appealing the administrative ruling of a court that ordered that he be sent to Italy, a country of which he is a citizen.

Mancuso’s lawyers say he would be killed if he returned to Colombia, a nation that has yet to heal from the wounds left by decades of bloody conflict. They claim that it fulfilled the obligations contracted under the agreement it negotiated in 2003, which sets sentences of no more than eight years for paramilitary leaders who confess their crimes.

Mancuso’s victims, however, demand justice they say has been denied so far. Colombian authorities also argue that denying Mancuso’s deportation request would be a huge snub to a staunch ally trying to overcome a decades-long civil conflict that left 260,000 dead and millions displaced. The demand for cocaine in the United States contributed to this carnage, a traffic that financed illegal armed groups such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) of Mancuso.

Successive conservative governments sent thousands of Colombians to the United States to be tried for drug trafficking. Mancuso’s is the most notorious case, since he directed the production and transportation of more than 138,000 kilos of cocaine, according to the agreement he signed with the United States.

« Sending it to Italy would be a disgusting betrayal of the victims, » ​​said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch for the Americas. « If the Colombian government is honestly committed to justice in relation to atrocious crimes, it should exhaust all legal instances for Mancuso to be sent to Colombia, answer for his actions and avoid this humiliation of the victims. »

The dispute highlights the things that remain pending in relation to the peace process that involves the paramilitaries, known as Justicia y Paz, which led to the demobilization of 30,000 right-wing combatants but did not fully meet the objective of the truth. and reconciliation.

The wounds reappeared this month when the Colombian Supreme Court ordered the arrest of former President Álvaro Uribe in the framework of an investigation into whether he collaborated in the bribery of witnesses to quell suspicions regarding his relations with the paramilitaries.

In 2008, Uribe extradited Mancuso and 13 other paramilitary leaders to stand trial for drug trafficking in the United States. His detractors say that the unexpected measure, which seems a violation of the peace accords, sought to silence these figures just as they began to reveal secrets about their crimes and the collaboration of politicians, including Uribe, who as departmental governor in the 1990s he supported the creation of legal armed groups to protect landowners from leftist guerrillas.

« With me they extradited the truth, » Mancuso told Colombian media shortly after his arrival in the United States in 2008.

On April 16, the US Department of Homeland Security ordered Mancuso to be sent to Italy, according to two people close to Mancuso who spoke on condition of not being identified to comment on a private administrative proceeding.

But the deportation did not occur. In June, US prosecutors acting on behalf of Colombian colleagues asked that the 55-year-old Mancuso be extradited to Colombia to serve a 27-year sentence for the kidnappings of two relatives of a high-ranking rebel chief, according to US legal documents. AUC fighters disguised as policemen abducted one from a flower shop and at the same time, a commando posing as a potential buyer broke into the other’s residence.

Mancuso, who according to the extradition request spoke by phone with one of the kidnappers immediately after the operation, subsequently assumed responsibility for the kidnappings committed by his troops. The two victims were killed.

Colombia withdrew its extradition request last month and the case was closed in the United States. Although the government did not give the reasons for its decision, it appears that Mancuso’s attorney in Miami, Joaquín Pérez, was more astute than the prosecutors.

Last month, a Bogota judge granted Mancuso parole in Colombia. The judge said that the years that Mancuso spent in prison in the United States satisfied the requirements of the Justice and Peace law, which allows alternative sentences of up to eight years to be served abroad. The judge annulled the arrest warrant on July 15 and five days later, Colombia withdrew its extradition request.

Colombian President Iván Duque says he wants Mancuso to return to Colombia and prosecutors are calling for his arrest in connection with other crimes. These charges, however, are not recognized by US law as they derive from his status as head of the AUC, not from specific orders he has issued. Mancuso is also being investigated in Colombia for alleged money laundering after his demobilization.

The apparent strength of Mancuso’s legal approaches does not prevent the Colombian authorities from continuing to insist on his arrest. And in a country with a complex, weak and corrupt legal system, it would not be surprising if a judge issued an arrest warrant.

President Duque has said that the sentence Mancuso served in the United States cannot be used to avoid sentences for « crimes against humanity » in Colombia.

« It takes longer for him to set foot on Italian soil than for me to directly present a request to the International Criminal Court to be prosecuted for these crimes, » Duque said in a recent interview with the Colombian magazine Semana.

Some detractors say that the measures the Duque government is taking are pure formalism.

Left-wing opposition senator Iván Cepeda said that Duque – whose political mentor is Uribe and who has among his supporters politicians who were imprisoned for their ties to the AUC – has little to gain from Mancuso’s return.

« You have to be very naive to believe that a simple administrative error is what frustrates the return of the most important source on the history of paramilitarism, » said Cepeda, who has traveled to the United States to speak with Mancuso on behalf of the victims.

Cepeda, who is Uribe’s main accuser and whose father was killed by the paramilitaries, wants a legislative hearing to be held on what he considers to be the mishandling of Colombia’s extradition request

Emerging as self-defense forces created by landowners in the 1980s to counter kidnappings and extortion calls from leftist rebels, the paramilitaries took control of much of Colombia’s Caribbean coast in the late 1990s, killing thousands of people and appropriating millions of hectares of land while taking lucrative routes to transport drugs. In 2001, the United States classified the AUC as a foreign terrorist organization.

Mancuso expressed greater regret than other paramilitary leaders and was willing to make peace with his former enemies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who signed their own peace agreement with the government in 2016.

His sophistication – he studied English at the University of Pittsburgh – always set him apart from other paramilitary leaders in rural areas. Robert Spelke, a retired federal prosecutor who dealt with drug trafficking and led cases involving paramilitaries, described Mancuso as a « very bright, very nice » and cooperative witness, determined to tell the truth. Spelke interviewed Mancuso for about 200 hours and said that on one occasion the paramilitary leader wept when he recounted a massacre of civilians perpetrated by paramilitaries.

« I know what these people did, » Spelke declared. “But when you put yourself in his shoes… it was a wicked war. I would like to think that I would have done things differently, but if the FARC are killing my family, stealing my cattle … ”.

Mancuso’s willingness to speak has shaken Colombian politics.

His 2005 claim that a third of Colombian lawmakers had been elected with the support of the paramilitaries sparked a wave of judicial investigations that led to the arrest of dozens of elected officials, including a senator who is Uribe’s cousin.

His cooperation with the Justice and Peace process continued from the United States, where he participated in more than 300 videoconferences with Colombian investigators and victims.

In a symbolic gesture that shook many Colombians, Mancuso spoke by phone last month with former FARC chief Rodrigo Londoño. Former adversaries pledged to support peace, reconciliation and aid to millions of victims.

That sincerity is what caused Mancuso to be extradited to the United States and what would put his life in danger if he is sent back to Colombia, according to Jaime Paeres, his lawyer in Colombia. Several family members have received threats, and last month Paeres reported to the attorney general that he had been the target of an attack by 35 armed individuals who broke into a ranch near the farm where he was staying.

“Mancuso wants to return to Colombia. But it is us, his lawyers and friends, and even some authorities, who have told him not to return, ”Paeres said. « I have no doubt that they will kill him if he comes to Colombia. »

After Mancuso was ordered to be sent to his father’s land, Italy, the Colombian authorities launched a final effort to try to get him back to Colombia.

Colombian ambassador to Washington Francisco Santos met in recent weeks with US officials at the White House and with officials from the State and Justice departments to try to block his transfer to Italy, according to a senior Colombian official who spoke on condition of anonymity. for commenting on private conversations.

The State Department and the White House did not comment on the issue. A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (known by its acronym in English, ICE) said in a statement that Mancuso has been in charge since July 21 and that they await the deportation order. ICE declined to provide details, citing security reasons.

While the extradition of drug traffickers eased pressure on investigators in Colombia, it is unusual for Colombia to ask for someone abroad to be detained.

But Mancuso’s value is unique. If the former paramilitary chief, famous for his talkativeness, returns to Colombia, he will surely tell uncomfortable truths that many Colombians would rather not hear, according to leftist lawmaker Cepeda.

« There is much known truth, » Cepeda commented. « But there can be much more. »