Jesús Santrich leaves prison and enters Colombian congress

The FARC politician and peace negotiator Jesús Santrich formally entered the Colombian congress on 10 June following his release from prison eleven days earlier. He will now occupy one of the FARC’s ten congressional seats agreed under the peace agreement’s chapter on political participation.

Jesús Santrich was arrested on 9 April – just hours after meeting with a Justice for Colombia Peace Monitor delegation of British and Irish parliamentarians and trade union officials – after a New York court issued an extradition request alleging he conspired to traffic cocaine into the United States. Despite a lack of evidence to support the charges, which the FARC and others said were ‘trumped up’, he spent fourteen months in prison in a case that became hugely significant for the future of the peace process.

The case hinged on whether the alleged offence took place, as the prosecution claimed, after 1 December 2016, the expiry date for amnesties covering the armed conflict. Any offences committed after that date would be subject to the standard justice system and therefore open the possibility of extradition.   

While Colombia’s government of Iván Duque sought to send Santrich to the US, the United Nations, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP – the peace agreement’s transitional justice chapter) and the Supreme Court said that the JEP must review his case before further action could be taken. Despite requests, however, US authorities failed to submit evidence so that the JEP could perform its review. With the JEP under strong political pressure, President Duque subsequently attempted to enforce unilateral changes on the peace agreement’s legal structure, including on the issue of extradition.

Justice for Colombia launched a ‘Justice for Santrich’ campaign which called for Santrich’s legal rights to be respected and for the JEP’s autonomy to be fully upheld. In August 2018, a JFC delegation visited Santrich in his Bogota prison cell and expressed concern over the conditions. Santrich was kept in solitary confinement and denied basic perks allowed to other inmates, such as receiving a meal from outside once a week. Santrich was also denied medication to help him manage his epilepsy and technological aides for his blindness. A 41-day hunger strike saw his health deteriorate alarmingly.

His arrest also sparked concern among FARC members over their own legal security. Many former guerrillas worried that if a senior party official and peace negotiator could be detained and potentially extradited, what would prevent something similar happening to rank-and-file members? The case was one of many alarming challenges facing FARC members participating in the reincorporation process: others included the murders of more than 130 of their colleagues and the lack of state support for developing productive projects.   

In September 2018, Britain’s TUC passed an emergency resolution calling Santrich’s ongoing detention ‘a direct threat to the agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC’. More than 30 British and Irish MPs and trade union leaders also signed a letter to express their concern over Santrich’s detention and the negative implications for the future of the peace agreement.

In May 2019, the JEP ruled that Santrich be freed as the absence of evidence meant no verdict could be reached on whether he had committed the alleged offences. This was subsequently backed by the High Court. However, in a highly-publicised action, Santrich was immediately re-arrested as he left La Picota prison in Bogota, as Duque’s government claimed it had the authority to bypass the JEP and proceed with the extradition.  

However, Santrich was properly released on 30 May after yet another ruling on his freedom, this time by the Constitutional Court. He was finally sworn into his congressional seat on 11 June, to celebrations among supporters and opposition from the right-wing government, with Duque labelling him a ‘mafioso’. As with other former guerrillas and members of the armed forces, he will face the JEP to testify about his role in the armed conflict.

Another JFC Peace Monitor delegation was in Colombia at the time of Santrich’s release in late May. In a statement presenting their conclusions, the delegation said that it had ‘met with Jesus Santrich’s lawyers and we continue to call for a full respect for due process in the case being brought against him’, while also welcoming the authorities’ compliance with the Supreme Court order for his release.

Santrich’s belated arrival in congress represents an important step forward for the peace process and has strengthened the agreement’s legal protection. Yet the slow or non-implementation of many core aspects of the agreement, as well as the shocking violence that has seen hundreds of social activists murdered since the it was signed, demonstrate that peace in Colombia remains worryingly fragile.