Over the last decade, Western media has fairly extensively covered the War on Drugs carried out by the U.S. and Colombian governments, writing profiles and producing segments on the string of drug traffickers facing justice –often after being extradited to the US. The criminal justice system, apparently, has been working.
Less widely known is the reality that some of the Colombians that have left the country in recent years — usually heading north — haven’t left to face justice. Instead, they’ve been fleeing it. And these weren’t criminals heading up drug trafficking groups, but rather former members of the Colombian government itself.
At the end of August, Julian Marulanda, the former head of a government body known as the National Protection Unit, which provides security to threatened individuals including political figures and human rights defenders, fled to Miami to avoid facing corruption charges.
Less than a week later, Sandra Morelli, the former Comptroller General, fled to Rome to avoid corruption charges just one day after finishing her term. She claims to have left Colombia due to a lack of “procedural guarantees” in the investigation of alleged abuses she committed while acting head of the highest fiscal watchdog in the country.
These two officials are in good company. Several other top Colombian government officials from the previous administration of former President Álvaro Uribe have also sought asylum abroad over the last few years.
This past June, the ex-Minister of Agriculture Andres Felipe Arias decided to leave for vacation the same day Colombian media reported a potential guilty ruling in his four-year court case. He was eventually convicted of embezzling $25 million from state subsidies intended for poor farmers and distributing the money to powerful families and even paramilitary groups instead. If Arias, who currently lives with his family in the U.S., ever returns to Colombia, he’ll have to serve more than 17 years in prison.
Serious crimes — but no punishment
Even these charges, serious as they may be, appear relatively mild next to the alleged crimes committed by other officials in the Uribe administration.
In 2010, Maria del Pilar Hurtado, the former head of Uribe’s now-defunct intelligence agency DAS, fled to Panama, where she still resides. It has been alleged, and substantial evidence suggests that under her leadership the DAS spied on President Uribe’s political opponents, journalists, human rights defenders and even Supreme Court judges who were investing Uribe’s political allies’ ties to paramilitary groups. The U.S. government, which counted Uribe as a close ally at the time, was also implicated in these crimes, as it had provided much of the equipment used in the wiretapping scandal.
Yet another Uribe-era official to flee the country was the former High Peace Commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo. Just before Uribe’s successful bid for re-election in 2006, Restrepo allegedly organized the demobilization of a fake FARC guerrilla unit with the help of a former guerrilla fighter and drug trafficker.
Paramilitary leaders have also accused Restrepo of undermining the demobilization process by having all the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) paramilitary blocs demobilize simultaneously, thus inundating the prosecutor general’s office with so many cases that the overburdened office couldn’t process the vast majority of them. If true, this strategy appears to have largely been successful, as to date only 36 paramilitary leaders have been convicted out of the almost 2,700 who participated in the demobilization process. Restrepo fled in 2012, many believe to the US.
With these long list of alleged — and often very serious — crimes, how successful have these government officials been in their attempts to escape the reach of the law?
It still too soon to say. Colombian newsweekly Semana just reported this week that Restrepo has been given asylum in Canada, thought the Canadian embassy has neither confirmed nor denied this. For the moment, at least, he appears safely out of reach of the Colombian justice system.
Arias has applied for asylum in the U.S., but Colombia has asked Interpol to issue a warrant for his arrest, and the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled to begin the process of his extradition. It’s unclear how long this process could take.
Hurtado has been in Panama for nearly four years and the Colombian government has twice failed to extradite her. The Panamanian government claims her charges are not included in the extradition treaty signed by the two countries. However, as TeleSurTV reported Monday, Panamanian authorities would agree to extradite her if requested to do so by Interpol.
Morelli might be able to use her Italian citizenship to avoid extradition, while it is unclear what options exist for Marulanda.
What is clear, though, is that as long as these officials continue to escape justice for the crimes they committed while they were members of the government, institutional corruption and abuses of power will continue unabated in Colombia.