The Colombian peace process with the FARC is facing a serious challenge in the wake of recent charges filed against a top FARC negotiator, who is slated to take a seat in Congress in the next session. Prosecutors allege that Seauxis Hernandez, alias Jesus Santrich, masterminded a scheme to ship 10,000 kilograms of cocaine to the United States, in conjunction with Mexico’s feared Sinaloa Cartel.
The blind former top negotiator in Havana was a familiar sight on television sets throughout Colombia and Latin America, as the Colombian government hammered out a complicated agreement with the Marxist guerrilla group. Now, Colombia finds itself in the midst of a raging debate as to what will happen to Santrich and his Congressional seat.
Santrich is wanted on charges filed by the Southern District of New York, and importantly, the charges stem from actions taken after January 1, 2017. Criminal acts prior to this date enjoy immunity from prosecution.
However, the US Attorney General alleges that Santrich and his co-conspirators recently participated in the large-scale cocaine trafficking.
US Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman stated, “As alleged, these defendants conspired to ship thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Colombia to the streets of the US. Thanks to the investigative work of the DEA, they are now under arrest and face significant criminal charges.”
An Interpol alert asserts that Santrich was involved in facilitating the massive 11-ton shipment from between June of 2017 and April of 2018, well after the immunity deadline had ended.
While the FARC has cried foul, President Santos has been clear that he fully supports criminal prosecution in the case: “The attorney general has informed me that, following rigorous investigations, he has strong and conclusive proof that will show Mr. Seauxis Hernandez, a.k.a. Jesus Santrich is responsible for narco-trafficking crimes committed after the signing of the accord. Of course he, like all citizens, should have his rights respected, including his right to due process…the accord is clear and I will strictly abide by it: I will not extradite anyone for crimes committed before the signing of the accord and during the conflict.”
In addition to the ensuing legal issues, the Colombian Congress must now consider the pressing political issue of what to do with the seat. Many on the right and center-right have suggested that the doctrine of the “silla vacia” or empty seat will now apply, meaning that the FARC would forfeit this seat in the next 4-year session of Congress.
Partido Conservador Senator Juan Diego Gomez argued that, “It is a crime that took place outside the timelines that established justice for peace and for political crimes, and is a fault that is punished with the ’empty chair.'”
However, Chairman of the House of Representatives Rodrigo Lara, of Cambio Radical, determined otherwise, arguing, “Mr. Santrich is not yet a representative of the House and that punishment [silla vacia] only applies for those who are congressmen. He is part of a list and if he can not take possession of the seat, the next candidate on the list will assume it.”
In Colombian Congressional elections, parties generally compose lists of candidates in numerical preferential order. This allows Congressional candidates to receive votes from across the country, and the number of House and Senate seats are then apportioned according to the percentage of votes received by the parties.
Ultimately, the issues lay in the hands of the National Electoral Council, who will determine whether the seat remains vacant, or the party can give it to the next candidate on their electoral lists.
Santrich was implicated through a series of damning audio recordings, taped by the DEA, which referenced drug shipments through Colombia’s major port of Barranquilla, and discussed dealings with figures based in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Michoacan. The recordings revealed the use of a code, in which words such as “avocados” and “televisions” were used to refer to units of the drug shipment.
The FARC has called the prosecution of Santrich a setup intended to “decapitate the political leadership of our party and bury the desire of peace of the Colombian people”, but they have provided no evidence to support claims of a conspiracy.
The leading presidential candidates had little sympathy for Santrich. Centro Democratico’s Ivan Duque and Cambio Radical’s German Vargas Lleras strongly condemned the alleged actions of Santrich, while left-wing former Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro, currently running second in the polls behind Duque, concurred that the allegations are extremely troubling.
Petro stated that “if the JEP (Special Jurisdiction for Peace) confirms that the acts were committed after the signing of the agreements, and I am the president of Colombia, Mr. Santrich will be extradited.”
The lack of support for Santrich reflects FARC’s lackluster first showing in recent Congressional elections, where they garnered just 0.4% of the vote. Their presidential candidate, Timochenko, has already bowed out of the presidential race, although the FARC will still be guaranteed 10 Congressional seats until 2026, per the terms of the peace agreement.