Former Drug Lord’s Extradition Means Trouble for Colombia's President

Whether or not Salvatore Mancuso is sent home next week, he is a headache for President Iván Duque.
August 28, 2020, 5:00pm
Cover:  Salvatore Mancuso, one of the leaders of the demobilized paramilitary group United Self-Defenses of Colombia (AUC, extreme right) is uncuffed prior to confessing publicly and before a public prosecutor his crimes against the human rights 19 Decemb

The extradition request for an infamous, brutal crime boss back to Colombia has placed President Iván Duque in a political pickle.

Salvatore Mancuso, 56, is responsible for the brutal murder of hundreds of victims during Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict and is one of the worst-offenders from the country’s recent past. After serving 12 years in the U.S on drug trafficking charges, authorities are now deciding whether to deport him to Italy or Colombia on September 4. 

For President Duque, the stakes are high.

If Mancuso talks, he could implicate Duque’s political mentor and former president Alvaro Uribe, still one of the most powerful men in Colombia, for being involved with right-wing death squads during the 1990s. That would be a huge blow to Duque’s popularity as his government navigates a course out of the COVID pandemic.

Whether Mancuso gets sent to Colombia now depends on whether Duque’s government files the paperwork on time. If his government fails to, Mancuso would be sent to Italy, where he plans to settle in for a luxurious retirement. That move would make Duque’s government look like a soft hand, hellbent on protecting Uribe from the crime boss’ potentially unsavory testimony. Uribe is already in trouble, and currently under house arrest for allegedly bribing witnesses.

The extradition request for Mancuso has now been bungled four times in a row. José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch said that the latest bureaucratic setback was “consistent with the improvisation, negligence, contradictions and tardy record that Colombian officials have shown so far in Mancuso’s extradition process.”

The administration of President Donald Trump, namely the Justice Department under William Barr, will ultimately decide where Mancuso goes. The U.S has promised to deport him by September 4th. “I spoke with justice authorities in the United States,” said Miguel Antonio Ceballos, Colombia’s peace commissioner. “The judge’s order for [Mancuso’s] deportation to Italy is not yet a final decision.”

Mancuso was a cattle rancher on the Caribbean coast when rebels belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began stealing steer, extorting and kidnapping fellow ranchers. Joining a network of livestock ranchers, Mancuso formed the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a notorious paramilitary force pitted against the rebels and responsible for atrocious human rights abuses.

Mancuso confessed to his crimes in 2007 and the then Uribe government hastily extradited him to the United States in 2008, where he eventually spent more than a decade in jail on drug charges and was released in April.

Mancuso doesn’t want to come back to Colombia. His lawyers keep telling him that if he does, he’ll be murdered by enemies who want him to keep his trap shut.

In Colombia, the botched extradition attempt has prompted criticism of Duque, who promised during his campaign for president that he would be tough on drug traffickers and prides himself on a law-and-order doctrine. Now, Duque is staking his political career on the outcome of Uribe’s court case. If the former president is found guilty, it will be a major setback to Duque’s credibility. 

Vivanco at Human Rights Watch insists that Duque’s government should do everything in its power to extradite Mancuso. Otherwise, he says, “it would be a slap in the face for the victims.”

Cover: Salvatore Mancuso, one of the leaders of the demobilized paramilitary group United Self-Defenses of Colombia (AUC, extreme right) is uncuffed prior to confessing publicly and before a public prosecutor his crimes against the human rights 19 December, 2006.