- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
Although voters in Colombia recently rejected a negotiated peace accord between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement, a ceasefire continues to hold as both sides say they remain committed to achieving an agreement for a lasting peace.
The principal reasons for the accord’s defeat have been ably identified elsewhere. Suffice it to say, many Colombians oppose the transitional justice system intended to hold FARC leaders accountable for their decades of criminality, as well as a plan to grant them automatic seats in congress.
One concern of the Colombian people that has not received adequate attention, however, is not just the FARC’s legalization as a political party, but as one that is estimated to have upwards of $10 billion stashed away in foreign banks. Some Colombian fear that the FARC would uses those illicitly accrued funds to replicate the Hugo Chávez playbook: buying support and suborning democratic institutions until, voila, Colombians wake up one day under the thumb of an ideological authoritarian movement dedicated to repressing dissent and forcibly redistributing wealth.
Remember, they said it could never happen in Venezuela either.
The FARC’s offshore holdings have already been a bone of contention in the run-up to the peace plan referendum. Last month, Santos told a New York audience that Colombia has a history of seizing assets from drug cartels and warned the FARC that their ill-gotten wealth could be seized to pay reparations to war victims.
The FARC, for its part, said prior to the referendum that it would reveal the amount of its offshore wealth only when the accord was approved, and offer to pay reparations to victims. Many observers dismissed that statement as a ploy to influence the plebiscite.
Regardless, to build voters’ confidence in a final peace accord with the FARC, the Colombian government — and the United States — ought to proceed in identifying and seizing FARC assets abroad now. This is blood money, derived from trafficking in illicit drugs, people, and other contraband, to which the FARC has no legitimate claim. Indeed, let the seized assets be used to indemnify victims of the conflict or even to reintegrate FARC foot soldiers into Colombian society. That’s certainly more just than calling on Colombian taxpayers to pay the bill.
The Obama administration can do its part by lending technical expertise and moving against known facilitators of the FARC’s finances abroad. That brings us once again to José Luis Merino, “the FARC’s man in El Salvador” and a top operative of the ruling party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). I have written before on this blog about Merino (here and here), but much has transpired since then.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is the latest Member of Congress to weigh in on Merino, challenging the administration at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on global corruption, saying, “You’ve got the right hand man of the president of El Salvador, José Luis Merino. This guy is a top-notch, world-class money launderer, arms smuggler for the FARC as well as for corrupt Venezuelan officials. Why is this guy not sanctioned?” Rubio then followed up with a letter to the Treasury Department asking the same question.
Soon thereafter, El Salvadoran Attorney General Douglas Meléndez announced he was reviving a 2014 investigation into Merino’s involvement in drug and weapons trafficking. “Given these statements from a public official of another country, and given that they are addressing a politician and public official of our country, we can’t not investigate,” he said.
Demonstrating that the targeting of Merino has struck a nerve, the FMLN recently took the extraordinary step of sending a delegation to Washington to lobby the U.S. Congress on behalf of Merino, according to investigative journalist Héctor Silva. The delegation also reportedly complained about U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes, who enthusiastically supports the anti-corruption efforts of Attorney General Meléndez.
All this shows that those investigating Merino are on the right track. But, as noted, there is more to this situation than just the suspected criminality of one man. Merino is an important cog in the FARC’s money-laundering machine abroad. The most important contribution the United States can make at this point to help Colombia achieve real peace is to bring down their foreign aiders and abettors. A good first step would be to sanction José Luis Merino and seize FARC assets secreted in his vast financial empire.
Photo credit: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images