MIAMI (AP) — A last-minute battle is unfolding over the fate of a former paramilitary warlord who the Colombian government wants returned following a long drug sentence in U.S. prison.
Salvatore Mancuso, the top commander of a since-disbanded group of right-wing militias, completed a 12-year cocaine trafficking sentence in March.
He remains in U.S. custody as Colombia — where courts have judged him responsible for more than 1,500 acts of murder or forced disappearance — fights a U.S. order that would send him to Italy, where he also has citizenship.
Mancuso's lawyers contend he would be killed if he returns to a South American country that has struggled to heal from decades of bloody conflict. They argue he has already fulfilled his obligations under a 2003 peace deal he negotiated, which caps prison terms at eight years for paramilitary bosses who confess their crimes.
The many victims Mancuso left behind say at stake is the justice that has long been denied them. Colombian officials also complain that denying their request that Mancusco be deported back home would be a high-profile snub to a staunch ally that suffered a decades-long civil conflict that left 260,000 dead and millions more displaced. The carnage was made worse by U.S. demand for Colombian cocaine, which funded illegal armed groups including Mancuso's United Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC.
Successive conservative governments have sent several thousand Colombians to face drug trafficking charges in the U.S. Mancuso is among the highest profile, having directed the manufacture and shipment of more than 138,000 kilograms of cocaine, according to his U.S. plea agreement.
"Removing him to Italy would be a repugnant betrayal for victims" said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch. "If the Colombian government is honestly committed to justice for atrocity crimes, it should exhaust all legal avenues to take Mancuso back to Colombia, hold him to account and prevent this humiliation to victims."
The fight underscores the unfinished business of the paramilitary peace process, known as Justice and Peace, that led to the demobilization of 30,000 right-wing fighters but fell way short of its ambitious goal of truth telling and reconciliation.
Those wounds resurfaced this month when Colombia's Supreme Court ordered the arrest of former President Álvaro Uribe as it investigates whether he helped bribe witnesses to keep a lid on suspicions that have long swirled about his own relationship with paramilitary groups.
In 2008, the far-right Uribe stealthily extradited Mancuso and 13 other warlords to face drug charges in the U.S. His critics say the shock move, an apparent peace accord violation, was an attempt to silence the men just as they began to reveal secrets about their crimes and politician collaborators — including Uribe, who as a governor in the 1990s backed the creation of legal, armed groups to protect ranchers' land from leftist guerrilla fighters.
"With me they extradited the truth," Mancuso told Colombian media shortly after his arrival in the U.S. in 2008.
On April 16, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ordered Mancuso's removal to Italy, according to two people close to Mancuso who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private administrative proceeding.
But that deportation didn't happen. In June, U.S prosecutors requested on behalf of their Colombian counterparts that the 55-year-old Mancuso be extradited to Colombia to serve a 27-year sentence for the 1997 kidnappings of two relatives of a top leftist rebel commander, according to U.S. court records. Armed AUC fighters dressed as Colombian police carried out one abduction at a flower shop while, at the same time in a separate operation, commandos posing as prospective home buyers raided the residence of the other victim.