Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered the release of “Jesús Santrich,” a senior member of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terrorist group, on Thursday, after his arrest on charges of trafficking cocaine because of a jurisdictional issue.
The court ruled that because the 2016 “peace” deal between the FARC and the government of Colombia allowed the terrorist group to establish a political party and granted it unelected seats in Congress, and Santrich received one, Santrich enjoys special immunity status that prevents regular courts from charging him with crimes. Only the Supreme Court can try a sitting legislator, the court noted.
It did not weigh in on the charges brought against Santrich – the nom de guerre of Seuxis Paucias Hernández Solarte – for allegedly attempting to smuggle 10,000 kilograms of cocaine from Colombia to the United States for profit, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The charges claimed that Santrich had conspired to smuggle the cocaine beginning in 2017, after the FARC agreed to dismantle their guerrilla apparatus and give up the drug trade.
Santrich was arrested in April, shortly before taking one of the ten congressional seats the FARC peace deal grants the terrorist organization without having to compete in an election for them. Authorities temporarily released Santrich, citing that the FARC peace deal does not allow the extradition of terrorists to face justice for their crimes abroad and the case against Santrich was filed by the American Department of Justice. Police since arrested him on May 17, however, and he has remained in custody since.
“The dignity of the office that the person carries would go disregarded by allowing authorities other than the Supreme Court of Justice to investigate them, judge them, or restrict their liberties” in the event that the defendant legally held a seat in Congress, the Supreme Court determined. A lawmaker takes office when the National Electoral Council ratifies their status, not on their first day of work, the court decided. The council had done so with Santrich, but he has not spent a single day working as a Congressman. The latter was not enough to invalidate the former, the court concluded.
The Supreme Court also ruled that police should release Santrich immediately on Thursday as the Supreme Court prepares a trial for him on the charges presented. At press time, Santrich remains behind bars and FARC defense attorneys are preparing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, citing the Supreme Court ruling.
Following the decision, Colombia’s Attorney General’s office sent their case file on Santrich to the Supreme Court for the latter to begin criminal proceedings, according to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. Should the Supreme Court deem the file to contain enough evidence against Santrich, police will once again arrest him.
Colombian President Iván Duque lambasted the ruling for benefitting a “mafioso,” though he added that he respects the separation of powers and will not interfere in the execution of the Supreme Court’s will.
“I can say it with my head held high,” he told reporters. “The decision that the Constitutional Court took, I accept it as a Colombian and defender of the law, but I will never stop defending the principles that have motivated the Colombian people so that we could have peace with justice.”
Santrich, he said, “is a mafioso and the evidence that the nation knows about [shows] he is a mafioso that was negotiating a cocaine shipment, and for this reason, also with new evidence, he was once again captured for events that clearly occurred after the signing of the agreements [the FARC peace deal].”
Other members of Congress have expressed disgust at potentially serving alongside Santrich.
“It would set a very bad example for Colombian to have seated in Congress, like in the old days of Pablo Escobar, a person with such a crminal condition,” senator Juan Diego Gómez said to Colombia’s RCN network.
Another senator, Paloma Valencia, told the network, “I lament very much that the institutions that represent justice have decided to take on the role of defenders of criminals, because that doesn’t just hurt institutions, but the country itself.”
Duque won the Colombian presidency last year largely as a result of national outrage at the FARC peace deal, which the Colombian people voted down in a national referendum, but Duque’s predecessor Juan Manuel Santos jammed through Congress, anyway. Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
The peace deal allows the FARC to establish a political party, which they rebranded as the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force (still FARC), and grants them ten uncontested seats in Congress until 2026. The deal requires the FARC to provide a financial inventory to ensure they are not profiting from drug trafficking – as they have for over half a century – but the group has so far provided sloppy, clearly incomplete budgets that officials have called “a joke.” They have suffered no repercussions for violating the deal.
Santrich’s fate now remains uncertain. The peace deal would not allow Colombia to extradite him on the U.S. charges unless he is convicted of a crime in Colombia that occurred after the signing of the deal.
The Department of Justice accused Santrich and two other FARC associates – Marlon Marín (“El Doctor”) and Fabio Simón Younes Arboleda – of working “together to produce and distribute approximately 10,000 kilograms of cocaine from Colombia to the United States and elsewhere.”
“As alleged, these defendants conspired to ship thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Colombia to the streets of the U.S. Thanks to the investigative work of the DEA, they are now under arrest and face significant criminal charges,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in April.
The DEA produced video evidence of Santrich negotiating the deal.
Colombia’s attorney general at the time, Nestor Martínez, estimated that the cocaine would have brought in a $320 million profit. Santos, who was still president at the time, said his officials had “resounding and conclusive proof” against Santrich.
FARC leaders claimed the charges were a nefarious capitalist plot against them.
“Santrich’s detention is part of a plan orchestrated by the government of the United States with the cooperation of the Colombian prosecutors,” Iván Márquez, a senior FARC leader, said at a press conference following the charges. “It is clear that we are facing another fabrication by the twisted American justice system.”