Fearing for His Life, Colombian Warlord Fights for Deportation to Italy

Colombian paramilitary warlord Salvatore Mancuso is escorted by U.S. DEA agents upon his arrival to Opa-locka, Florida, in 2008. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf will be expected to appear in federal court, a Washington judge warned Wednesday, if the Trump administration once again goes back on its word on plans to deport a former Colombian paramilitary leader who fears persecution in his homeland. 

“I can assure you, if the government pulls any fast maneuvers, or what I would characterize in the old days as sharp practices, there will be hell to be paid in this courtroom,” U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said. 

The George W. Bush appointee assured attorneys for Salvatore Mancuso that the government would be held to its commitment to allow their client to appeal a decision on his removal from the United States, where he recently completed a 12-year sentence for trafficking cocaine. 

The Justice Department just last week had assured the judge that the government planned to deport the former drug lord to Italy, upon his request, by no later than Sep. 4. 

But the Trump administration reversed course Saturday, informing Mancuso the night before his departure to Italy that he would instead be deported to Colombia.

“We had a done deal for removal,” attorney Manuel J. Retureta said, representing Mancuso.  

The government made the switch based on the authority of the attorney general to disregard the country designated for an alien’s removal if he deems that carrying out the order would be “prejudicial to the United States,” as outlined in the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act. 

The Aug. 29 notice informed Mancuso, once head of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, that he had two weeks to request a withholding of removal based on fear of persecution. He is currently being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Georgia. 

His attorneys have argued that Mancuso was instrumental in quelling the violence of a decades-long civil conflict in Colombia — helping negotiate a peace deal that demobilized paramilitary groups and limited prison terms to eight years for leaders who confess their crimes — and in doing so made enemies at the highest levels of power. 

Retureta urged the judge to review the notice of change of country of removal, which is signed by an ICE field office director, not Attorney General William Barr. 

“We challenge that notice as being just flat out void. The attorney general did not sign. There’s no indication that the attorney general was consulted, gave a delegation, gave any type of authority to Homeland Security,” the attorney said. 

Furthermore, Retureta argued that had the attorney general given Wolf the authority to deport Mancuso to Colombia, the move could still be challenged based on a recent determination by the Government Accountability Office that the acting secretary was illegally appointed. 

But Leon determined he lacked jurisdiction to intervene in the matter because Mancuso has yet to follow through with the immigration process to review his fear of persecution claim. 

The determination of a deportation to Italy being “prejudicial to the United States,” the judge added, was a political decision that he could not second guess. 

“I don’t see how I can have the authority to question that,” Leon said.

The Justice Department assured the judge that no removal to Colombia would be set in motion until all administrative remedies had been exhausted. Mancuso holds citizenship in both Colombia and Italy. 

“It’s on the record now,” Leon told Mancuso’s attorneys. 

The judge denied their motion for a temporary restraining order and also rejected a request to file briefs to challenge Saturday’s immigration notice.

Instead, Leon ordered both parties to keep him informed on the government’s progress reviewing Mancuso’s claims that he could face torture or assassination if returned to Colombia, where he faces additional criminal charges.

Colombian President Iván Duque has stated publicly that he has asked the U.S. to extradite Mancuso.

But in a court filing Tuesday, the Justice Department argued Mancuso is currently scheduled for removal — not extradition — and has seemingly conflated the two.

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