Outdated U.S. Policies Complicate Reincorporation of Former FARC Members in Colombia

Apr 23, 2021
3:23 PM

Ex-combatants of the disbanded FARC and social activists take part in a march to demand the government guarantee their right to life and compliance with the 2016 peace agreement, in Bogotá, Colombia, Sunday, November 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

By Thomas Power and Cruz Bonlarron Martínez

BOGOTÁ — Just a few blocks from the Parque Nacional in Bogotá, a group of people are cleaning out debris from an abandoned building and setting up a brewpub. It’s a familiar scene in a city struggling to gain some sense of normalcy after a devastating pandemic. But the beer sold here, La Trocha, is different from most, given that it’s brewed by former political prisoners and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The FARC was once Latin America’s oldest Marxist insurgency. However, since signing a peace agreement with the Colombian government in 2016, the FARC has been trying to reincorporate into society. Doris Suárez, one of the brewers and a former political prisoner, explained that the brewpub being built is called La Casa de Paz (House of Peace), and in addition to being a social enterprise, it will also be a social center for people to debate and to support others in the process of reincorporation.

Yet reincorporation is not an easy task because of the stigma against ex-combatants.

“How do I resume my life after being in the FARC and being in prison for 20 years?” Suárez told Latino Rebels.

She then goes on to explain that starting La Trocha was filled with ups and downs. First, they had difficulties getting bank accounts because they had no bank records while they were in prison or la guerrilla. Then they were kicked out of their former location and nobody wanted to rent to them. It wasn’t until a video they put out went viral that they were able to finally find a place. While La Trocha has had to overcome these enormous obstacles, outdated U.S. policies are complicating the reincorporation of ex-guerrillas as a whole. Some of their leaders are still sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury, while former leaders are still being held in U.S. prisons in what some consider to be political prisoners.

With the implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord facing obstacles, leaders of the new FARC Political Party —now named Comunes— are calling on the U.S. to change course and support more fully reincorporation and peace in Colombia.

The Clinton List

The FARC is on the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list (“SDN List”) of the Treasury Department under the designation of “Foreign Terrorism Sanctions,” “Global Terrorist Sanctions Regulations,” and “Foreign Narcotic Kingpin Regulations.” This gives the Treasury the power to sanction anyone who does business or supports an organization or individual on this list.

Omar de Jesús Restrepo “Olmedo,” a congressman for the Comunes party, said the U.S. should “take us off this list and avoid all the stigmatization… so we can have a smoother reincorporation, a reincorporation with dignity, one with guarantees.”

Additionally, there are ex-FARC commanders still on this list as individuals, including Timochenko (Rodrigo Londoño), former commander and current leader of the party. Others include representatives Marcos Calarcá (Luis Alberto Alban Burbano), Pablo Catatumbo (Jorge Torres Victora), Pastor Alape (José Lisando Lascarro), among others. The Treasury put them on the list for allegedly having violated the narcotics regulations, ostensibly for their alleged drug trafficking during the time with the guerrilla. This classification is known as the “Clinton List” for its designation of allegedly being drug traffickers.

Bill Clinton signed The Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, the Kingpin Act, in 1999. This act allows the Treasury to freeze assets of suspected drug traffickers and prosecute those who do business with them. According to the U.S. government, “[The act’s] purpose is to deny significant foreign narcotics traffickers, their related businesses, and their operatives access to the U.S. financial system and to prohibit all trade and transactions between the traffickers and U.S. companies and individuals.”

“They are working for justice and truth with the JEP [Special Peace Jurisdiction], and this is already a significant advance. The [U.S.] government can study and analyze this and should take them off the Clinton List because we consider the war to be in the past, and we are committed to peace,” said Manuel Antonio González, a member of the Antioquia Departmental Management team of the Comunes party.

Congressman Restrepo added that this makes things complicated for the operation of their party.

“Imagine, today some colleagues of mine still can’t get a bank account and aren’t able to be the legal representatives because they are on that list. What’s more, during elections, it’s very difficult to get resources to do a political campaign,” he said.

There are precedents of other world powers taking the FARC off their terror list. The European Union removed the FARC from theirs in 2017, once the FARC demobilized and handed over its arms. This means the FARC can now access financial resources from the EU, and could potentially receive local and international contributions for electoral campaigns.

“We signed a peace agreement convinced that it wasn’t only for Colombia, but for the region and the world and that a lot of countries,  including the U.S., weren’t only going to be with us in solidarity, but actually give a vocal backing,” González said.

The U.S. embassy in Bogotá did not return Latino Rebels requests for an interview.

The Case of Simón Trinidad

“The U.S., and other countries, if they were really going to back us, our comrades Ivan Vargas and Simon Trinidad would be in liberty,” González said, referring to former FARC guerrillas who are still in U.S. prisons.

The sanctions against the former FARC guerillas aren’t the only way that the United States government has continued to punish the rebel group turned political party after the peace process. Far away from the Andes in a Colorado maximum-security prison, Simón Trinidad, a former FARC commander, is serving a 60-year sentence for supposedly conspiring to kidnap U.S. military contractors in Colombia.

Simón Trinidad, the alias for Juvenal Oveidio Ricardo Palmera Pineda, grew up in the Northern Colombian city of Valledupar. In the 1980s, he started teaching at la Universidad Popular de César, where he got caught in the politics of the time and joined the newly formed leftist political party, la Unión Patriotica. During this time, the UP faced intense repression with right-wing paramilitary groups and elements of the state apparently colluding to murder party activists, resulting in the murder of 6,000 party sympathizers, including two of the UP’s presidential candidates and various sitting congresspeople.

In response to this repression and threats against him, Trinidad joined the FARC, where he would rise in the ranks, becoming a commander and a member of FARC’s peace negotiation team in the failed peace negotiations with the administration of Andrés Pastrana from 1998-2002.

Shortly after the failure of the January 2004 peace negotiations, Trinidad was captured in Ecuador and extradited to Colombia, where far-right President Álvaro Uribe was on a mission to eradicate the FARC militarily and politically. Despite the fact that an embassy cable from the time of his capture stated that Trinidad did not play a major role in planning combat operations nor did he have any open investigations in the United States, the Uribe administration wanted him extradited to the United States

Less than a year later, Trinidad boarded a plane to Miami in handcuffs. In the United States, he would face charges of drug trafficking and conspiracy to kidnap three U.S. military contractors, who were conducting reconnaissance operations over FARC-held territory in Colombia.

After various mistrials, he was acquitted of the drug trafficking charges but in 2008 he was charged with conspiracy to kidnap the three military contractors and sentenced to 60 years in a U.S. prison for a crime that allegedly occurred in Colombia. He would be sent to the Florence ADX in Colorado, one of the world’s most brutal prisons, where he would be subject to inhumane conditions including solitary confinement, which constitutes a form of torture.

Four years later, hopes grew that Trinidad would be allowed to take part in the peace negotiations happening between the FARC and the Colombian government in Havana. Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president at the time, even came out in support of the idea. But the United States firmly rejected allowing Trinidad to participate in the peace talks when Secretary of State John Kerry stated bluntly that “Simón Trinidad is not part of the peace process”.

Trinidad’s lawyer Mark Burton said Trinidad has tried to participate in the peace process, and that Trinidad has submitted a formal commitment to the JEP but is unable to do much more because he is in a U.S. prison.

“There is a long history of keeping political prisoners as long as they can, like Leonard Peltier, and it’s symbolic. We have power over you and don’t rebel against us. Plan Colombia was a war against FARC and other rebel groups, so it’s a manner of showing their power I think, symbolically,” Burton said.

Trinidad, who is now 70 years old, is not the only former FARC prisoner held in the U.S. There are currently two others, Iván Vargas and Erminso Cabrera Cuevas, who similarly have been deprived of participating in the peace process and are accused of crimes that could be amnestied if they were in Colombia.

Another member of the former FARC, Omaira Rojas Cabrera, was imprisoned in the U.S. but was deported to Colombia after finishing her sentence in 2018. Since returning to Colombia, she has complied with the JEP’s requirements and has been active in promoting the reincorporation of ex-combatants back into society. Rojas Cabrera has even gone back to school, receiving her degree through the reincorporation process demonstrating that like the vast majority of ex-combatants those imprisoned in the United States can also put the past behind them and play an active role in the peace process if they can return to Colombia.

Moving Forward

“In this country, the peace isn’t complete yet, there are some actors who haven’t sat at the table, the ELN are still in arms. They have had some difficulties, but they are difficulties we solve through dialogue,” said González, a member of the Comunes party.

Demobilized FARC are still facing violence from some of these armed actors. According to the UN verification mission of the Peace Accords in Colombia, 262 ex-combatants have been killed since the signing of the 2016 peace deal, along with 59 homicide attempts and 21 enforced disappearances. Last November, the FARC political party held a pilgrimage to Bogotá to call attention to the violence, yet 14 have already been killed this year.

“We’re concerned about security. This war really needs to stop. We consider this a repetition of what the UP lived,” González said, referring to the genocide of the UP in the 1980s.

“It also sends a message to other armed insurgencies, such as the ELN, that it’s difficult to achieve a peace process while it isn’t guaranteed that the United States, which has a lot of political strength here, doesn’t commit to the process,” said Abilio Peña, a Colombian human rights defender who works with the collective ANSUR.

The demobilized are also being labeled by some on the right as some sort of political wing of the FARC dissidents. Both the Asociación Colombiana de Oficiales Militares Retirados (Colombian Association of Retired Military Officials, Acore) and a representative of President Iván Duque’s Democratic Center party have falsely claimed that Comunes is the political wing of the FARC dissidents.

“It’s obviously morally damaging,” Peña said.

Despite all of the external and internal challenges to the 2016 Peace Accords, former FARC guerillas remain committed to the 2016 Peace Accords. According to them, symbolic measures such as removing the former FARC from the terrorist list and practical measures such as removing leaders of the new party from the Clinton List will reduce stigmatization and assure a just reincorporation, especially from a country such as the U.S., which has a lot of political influence in Colombia.

“Get rid of this stigmatization that has us as terrorists. We are a legal political party under the constitution and law. We have all the paperwork that any country in the world can look at,” González said.


Thomas Power is an investigator and writer based in Bogotá, Colombia. He is a candidate for a master’s in Political Studies from Colombia’s National University and was an International Human Rights accompanier with Fellowship of Reconciliation. Twitter: @ahbueno55.

Cruz Bonlarron Martínez is a writer and a Co-Director of the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective’s Colombia Program. He holds a Masters in Latin American & Latino Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Twitter: @cruzbonmar.