DC: case opens against FARC commander

Its last effort having resulted in a mistrial, the Justice Department is again trying to get narco-terrorism charges to stick against a Colombian guerilla commander. From BBC News, Jan. 9, emphasis added (note to BBC fact-checker: learn how to spell “Ricardo”):

The trial of a former Colombian guerrilla commander extradited to the United States has begun in Washington.

Nayibe Rojas – better known by her alias, Sonia – is accused of smuggling hundreds of tonnes of cocaine into the US. She denies the charges.

Ms Rojas was a leading member of the left-wing rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Her trial is part of US efforts to weaken the group, which gets much of its funding through the drugs trade.

Ms Rojas, 39, was deported in March 2005, following her capture in southern Colombia.

The BBC’s Jeremy McDermott, in Colombia, says US prosecutors are not only hoping to convict her as a drugs trafficker, but to paint the Farc as now nothing more than a drugs cartel.

The trial is being held in the same courtroom where another Farc commander, Rocardo [sic] Palmera, was tried last year.

He was accused of plotting to kidnap three US citizens after their plane crashed in Colombia.

A mistrial was declared in November after jurors failed to reach a unanimous verdict.

The US last year announced drug indictments against 50 Farc leaders – none of whom have so far been captured.

Farc is the largest rebel group in Colombia. It has been fighting the government for more than four decades.

See our last post on Colombia.

  1. A bigger error
    It seems the BBC got bigger things wrong than the spelling of “Ricardo.” Writes Paul Wolf:

    The BBC story is false. Nobody is accused of smuggling hundreds of tons of anything. The indictment charges several people with conspiracy to distribute and import into the US more than 5 kilograms of cocaine. After hearing the attorneys’ opening arguments, it appears the evidence consists of intercepted phone calls in which defendants are talking about buying and selling hundreds of “things” – the words kilogram or cocaine are not used. This is why the government is calling an expert “language decoder” witness, to claim that they are talking about cocaine. In any event the numbers of “things” do not add up to more than a thousand or two, so even if they are kilograms of cocaine, it wouldn’t be more than one or two tons.

    The other falsehood in the story is that nobody is accused of smuggling. They are accused of conspiracy. This means that no drugs were seized – the defendants are accused of planning to smuggle drugs. The BBC reporter doesn’t cite his source, but I would guess his story is based on information from either Colombian or US government officials. In these political trials, there is normally an accompanying trial by media, and it’s the false public trial that’s so unfair.

  2. Perhaps this one is more accurate…?
    From the AP, Jan. 8:

    BOGOTA – A Colombian woman who rose through the ranks of Latin America’s largest rebel army goes on trial in a U.S. courtroom Tuesday for allegedly running a multimillion-dollar drug smuggling business for the insurgents.

    Nayibe Rojas, better known by her nom de guerre Sonia, will face a federal jury in the same Washington courthouse where the trial of another senior Colombian rebel charged with holding three Americans hostage ended in a hung jury in November.

    Rojas was extradited on drug-trafficking charges in March 2005 following her capture in southern Colombia. Born into a peasant family, the 39-year old said in court papers that before her arrest she had never stepped foot in the United States or even traveled to Colombia’s capital, Bogota.

    But despite having only a 2nd-grade education, Rojas is accused by Colombian authorities of masterminding the smuggling of more than 600 metric tons (660 tons) of cocaine to the United States and Europe since 1994, earning millions of dollars for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

    Her trial is part of U.S. efforts to weaken the FARC, which it lists as a “foreign terrorist organization.” Washington has given more than US$4 billion to Colombia since 2000 in an anti-drug effort that also seeks to cripple the four-decade-old insurgency.

    But anything short of a conviction for Rojas could be a huge embarrassment to President Alvaro Uribe, who has repeatedly called the FARC the world’s largest drug-trafficking organization. Illegal right-wing militias and other sectors of Colombian society are also deeply involved in cocaine and heroin trafficking.

    In March, the U.S. government announced drug indictments against 50 FARC leaders and a combined US$77.5 million (*59 million) in reward money. All 50 remain at large.

    The FARC has long denied it is involved in drug-trafficking, but a Rojas conviction is unlikely to change its reliance on cocaine smuggling to fuel its insurgency.

    “Everyone knows the FARC’s denial is a bald lie but even the credibility of a conviction in a U.S. court is not going to prevent them from continuing to smuggle drugs,” said Myles Frechette, who was U.S. ambassador in Bogota from 1994 to 1997.

    Instead, in trying Rojas, zealous U.S. attorneys run the risk of an outcome similar to that of the recent case of senior FARC commander Ricardo Palmera, also known as Simon Trinidad, who was charged with plotting to keep three American defense contractors hostage after their plane crashed in Colombia in 2003.

    After five weeks of testimony, jurors were deadlocked and a mistrial was declared Nov. 21. U.S. prosecutors say they will bring a second case against Palmera this spring.

    “After losing the Simon Trinidad case, the government can’t afford to blow this one,” said Paul Wolf, a Washington lawyer who specializes in international law and has followed both cases. “It would not only vindicate the FARC but also call Uribe’s extradition program into question.”

    Since taking office in 2002, Uribe has approved the extradition of almost 500 Colombians to the United States, the vast majority on drug-trafficking charges.

    But Rojas and Palmera — who is facing a separate trial on drug charges — were the first ever FARC members extradited.

    Rojas’ 2004 capture was celebrated as a huge blow to the FARC’s drug-trafficking business. Before she was extradited authorities kept her under guard on a naval vessel at sea, worried that their high-profile prisoner might be killed or freed by her former comrades.

    But Rojas’ refusal to cooperate with U.S. authorities has quashed whatever hopes anti-narcotics officials had of uncovering details on FARC drug smuggling operations.

    As part of the trial, prosecutors want to call as a witness a Colombian government language expert who is supposed to be able to decode for jurors dozens of phone calls in which Rojas is allegedly heard arranging drug shipments.

    Although she’s not on trial for murder, the prosecution also wants to hear testimony from an alleged former rebel who says he was ordered by Rojas to kill 10 peasants who refused to sell the FARC coca paste, from which cocaine is made.

    If Rojas is convicted it could complicate tentative steps by the government to strike a deal with the FARC to release some 60 so-called political prisoners — including the American contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a French citizen — for hundreds of jailed rebels.

    The FARC has demanded the U.S. government release both Rojas and Palmera for the exchange to take place.