U.N. Ceremony Ending Colombia’s Civil War Nixed After DOJ Objections
The Obama administration wanted a big show in New York to ink Colombia's peace deal. But the Justice Department balked at letting terrorists and drug dealers into the country.
Facing the prospect that voters might reject a landmark peace deal ending Colombia’s decades-long civil war, Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín seized on an audacious plan to bring the country’s warring parties together at a Sept. 21 signing ceremony at the United Nations with world leaders looking on.
Her hope: By placing an international imprimatur on the shaky deal, Colombian voters might be more willing to embrace it. The State Department and White House agreed. But officials at the Justice Department balked, leery of allowing leaders of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), many of them indicted drug dealers and wanted terrorists, to enter the United States for a signing ceremony.
Late Thursday, Colombian and U.N. officials ditched the plan, with some diplomats pinning the blame squarely on Washington’s failure to ensure the safe passage of FARC leaders.
“[The] U.S. could not guarantee visa issuance,” a senior U.N.-based diplomat told Foreign Policy by email. “[The] U.S. will claim otherwise. But they could not guarantee visas would be issued in time.”
Instead, the signing ceremony will take place in Cartagena on Sept. 26, frustrating some officials at the State Department who saw an opportunity to demonstrate to Colombian voters global support for the peace deal.
“The ‘no’ vote has at least a chance of winning,” said Adam Isacson, a security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group. “So if you had this vote after the big ceremony, then there’s this wave of euphoria that could benefit the ‘yes’ campaign.”
Supporters of the peace deal have stressed that war could break out again in the country if the “no” campaign wins the vote.
White House spokesman Peter Boogaard declined to address charges that the Justice Department effectively nixed the New York signing ceremony, saying only that if Colombia wanted the signing at the U.N., “the U.S. government would follow the appropriate procedures to determine the eligibility of all signatories to enter the United States.”
The Justice Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But several current and former federal law enforcement officials confirmed that concerns were raised — and fiercely voiced — about giving U.S.-indicted criminal suspects amnesty from American courts for the sake of a photo opportunity.
Robert McBrien, a former Justice Department lawyer and retired associate director for the global targeting division of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, called it “beyond the pale” that indicted FARC members would be allowed into the United States, with even temporary immunity, and raised concerns that it could harm future efforts to prosecute them.
McBrien said the United States has imposed sanctions 13 times against the FARC since 2003. Those sanctions remain in place.
“This is a peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the FARC. That is a separate and distinct thing from the various criminal acts and drug trade committed against the United States,” McBrien said Friday. “These are people we would work very hard to bring to the U.S. to prosecute. To let them come in and sign an agreement and then fly away, I find very hard to accept.”
Colombian officials did not specifically call out the Justice Department but noted that logistical concerns did play a role in preventing a New York signing ceremony. A senior Colombian diplomat, Carlos Arturo Morales López, told FP that the “schedule was a little bit too tight” to arrange the travel of so many Colombian officials, journalists, and guerrillas. “There was not enough time to have a ceremony,” he said. “The government reviewed the situation and decided to do it in Colombia.”
This week, Holguín, the Colombian foreign minister, said the signing ceremony could be held later this month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly annual meeting. She said the U.N. had asked Colombia to convene the signing ceremony, though U.N. officials said the idea came from the Colombians.
The State Department designated the FARC as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997, and the Justice Department has indicted dozens of its members on murder and kidnapping charges, as well as for smuggling billions of dollars in cocaine into the United States. One of those indicted was Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, better known as Timochenko, who as recently as 2009 carried a $5 million U.S. bounty for his arrest — and was one of the FARC leaders expected to attend the U.N. ceremony.
Besides Timochenko, one other FARC rebel expected to attend was Luciano Marín Arango, also known as Iván Márquez, a member of the group’s governing secretariat. He is accused of trafficking large amounts of cocaine and running guns. The State Department also issued a $5 million bounty for his arrest.
Another expected participant was Félix Antonio Muñoz Lascarro, or “Pastor Alape,” who is one of the FARC’s top military commanders. He is suspected of overseeing a major cocaine ring and ordering the bombings and murders of his adversaries. He participated in the peace talks in Havana, Cuba, this year that finally brought the conflict to an end. His State Department bounty is $2.5 million.
The treaty between Bogota and the FARC would end more than a half-century of guerrilla warfare in Colombia that has killed at least 220,000 people and displaced more than 6 million from their homes. Years of Cuban-brokered negotiations yielded a cease-fire agreement last month that would reintegrate 7,000 FARC guerrillas into Colombian society. The agreement now requires a yes-or-no vote from Colombian voters in an Oct. 2 plebiscite.
The deal would eventually recognize the FARC as a political party and, most controversially, offer pardons for some of the group’s lesser crimes. Opponents of the deal, such as the popular former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, say it offers “amnesty” to FARC militants charged with kidnapping, murder, drug trafficking, and other offenses. On paper, at least, it would establish a truth and reconciliation commission, allowing rebels and Colombian soldiers and other belligerents to put in time at halfway houses and other correctional facilities.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has taken a particular interest in the conflict, appointing Bernard Aronson as the special envoy for the Colombian peace process in 2015. In his work, Aronson earned the trust of both FARC guerrillas and aides of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, and he played a role in talks over the agreement’s subcommission on transitional justice. “I’m sort of a … utility infielder in baseball,” he once said during an interview. “Do a little bit of everything.”
This week, U.N.-based officials and diplomats struggled to finalize preparations for the ceremony. “We are trying,” said a second senior U.N.-based official several hours before the plan to hold the ceremony in New York was cancelled. “But the action is with Washington as to the modalities for visas.”
On Tuesday, Santos signed a decree finalizing the question voters will see in the contentious plebiscite on Oct. 2: “Do you support the final accord to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?”
The peace deal will be ratified only if more citizens answer yes than no. The “yes” campaign also needs to surpass a threshold of 4.4 million votes, or 13 percent, of Colombia’s electorate. If the deal is formally signed, the FARC is then required to disarm and refashion itself as a political party within 180 days. The United Nations will monitor the process.
If the “no” campaign wins, Santos has warned that the FARC is “preparing to return to war, even an urban war,” though critics have dismissed the claim as bluster aimed at riling up votes for the “yes” campaign.
Santos, whose legacy as president hinges in large part on the deal’s implementation, called the vote a “clear, simple question that leaves no room for confusion.”
This story has been updated
Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch