FARC negotiator gets Colombia’s max —in US prison

Simón Trinidad [nom de guerre of Ricardo Palmera Piñeda], the FARC’s well-known prisoner-exchange negotiator, was today sentenced to 60 years in prison in Federal District Court in Washington, DC. Several months ago, Trinidad was found guilty of conspiracy to take three [US] military contractors as hostages, a crime occurring back in 2003. The sentence was determined in a separate proceeding held today.

The 60 year penalty, the maximum allowable under Colombian law, is a relatively new invention. In 2004, under a program funded and administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Colombia reformed its penal code (Law 890, which modified Article 31) to increase the maximum allowable penalty from 40 to 60 years. As one of the first beneficiaries of the legal reform, it seems fitting that the punishment would be calculated in Washington. Even more so because this penalty didn‚t even exist in Colombia back in 2003 when the crime was committed.

The penalty was calculated according to the US federal sentencing guidelines. Factors used to calculate the sentence included whether a demand was made for the release of the hostages, whether a weapon was used, the length of time the hostages were held, whether Trinidad accepted responsibility for the crime, and the relative importance of his role in it. Another factor—and a big one—was whether taking the three contractors prisoner was an act of “terrorism”—i.e., a violent crime intended to intimidate a government and extract a concession from it.

The defense argued that Trinidad’s “agreement”—a conspiracy is essentially an agreement to commit a crime—was limited to taking a letter from FARC commander Raul Reyes to Ecuador, to present to James LeMoyne, a UN official who had brokered the FARC’s negotiations with the government of President Andres Pastrana. Trinidad didn’t have the mens rea, or guilty mental state, had never made any demand for the hostages’ release, had no say in whether they ever would be released, and has never even seen the hostages.

Nevertheless, the judge found against Trinidad for every sentencing factor, indicating the maximum penalty available for this crime, which under US law would be life imprisonment. However, the judge noted that he would respect the wishes of the Colombian government, which asked for the sentence to be limited to 60 years, in accordance with the new law. Judge Lamberth acquiesced and sentenced Trinidad to 60 years without parole.

During the “allocution” phase of the hearing, prosecutor Ken Kohl gave a dramatic presentation about the evils of the FARC, the seriousness of the offense, and his low opinion of the defendant. He believed this case should be an opportunity to, as he put it, “educate” the FARC and show them that they could be subjected to criminal prosecution in the US if captured. He said that the FARC had kidnapped or killed 21 North Americans in its history, and that Simon Trinidad was the first FARC member ever convicted of terrorism.

Kohl repeated the claim, promoted by [Colombian vice president and former Medellín cartel hostage] Francisco Santos‘ group Pais Libre, that the FARC are currently holding 700 people hostage. It’s worth noting that [President] Alvaro Uribe does not make this claim. Just this weekend he stated in an interview to Euronews, that the Colombian government blames 700 kidnappings over the past ten years on the FARC. This is a very small percentage of the total number of kidnappings which occurred in Colombia over this period—perhaps 2-3%. And there is no reason to believe those 700 people are even alive. It’s certainly not something the prosecutor could prove in court, or that the judge should consider in calculating Trinidad’s sentence.

Kohl emphasized that Trinidad should be punished as a terrorist “because,” he said as he pointed at the defendant, “that’s what he is. A terrorist.” Kohl described various notorious crimes committed by the FARC, such as the kidnapping and subsequent (and still unclear) deaths of eleven deputies abducted in Cali, the abduction of Alan Jarra while riding in a UN vehicle, and the kidnapping of Elias Ochoa, which the prosecution used as
character evidence in Trinidad’s first trial. Kohl argued that Trinidad had knowledge of all of these crimes, as well as knowing [prominent FARC captive] Ingrid Betancourt personally, who, he said, had pled with the FARC to stop kidnapping, and paid the price with her freedom.

As Kohl described Trinidad’s “exploiting the agony” of the hostages, a large flat screen TV displayed photos of prisoners in barbed wire camps, of Ingrid Betancourt, and of the three North Americans, both before their capture, and in the recent “proof of life” photos. The FARC, he said, is not a populist movement. There is nothing noble or inspiring about it. Photos of the FARC in uniform were an illusion. The FARC wore them at the time of the despeje [FARC-controlled demilitarized zone], but otherwise, he said, the FARC was a clandestine organization. Of the 16,000 members of the FARC, 8,000 had recently deserted. Kohl showed a photo of a mass demonstration in Bogotá with a sign that said “Down with the FARC.” Again pointing at Trinidad, Kohl reminded the judge that negotiations for the release of the three Americans “had to go through this man.”

“The callousness and brutality of this crime is hard to comprehend. It is impossible to overstate how horrific and barbaric this crime is,” he continued, “the product of Simon Trinidad’s crazed, warped sense of social justice.” Trinidad was responsible not only for this crime, said Kohl, but also for brainwashing other guerrillas, even recruiting one of the reinsertado [demobilized guerilla fighters] witnesses, who testified that Trinidad induced him to join the FARC with champagne and the promise of girls. “If the guerrillas who carried out these abductions were the paws of the beast, Simon Trinidad was it’s mouth,” he observed.

Kohl believed that nothing good had come of previous peace negotiations with the FARC. These negotiations only helped the FARC take more hostages and produce more cocaine. For 20 years, he said, Simon Trinidad had been sending out teams of kidnappers and was responsible for numerous crimes not before the court. He “drank the kool aid,” according to Kohl. He was even like Osama bin Laden. Kohl said bin Laden was hiding in a cave in Afghanistan.

To tell the truth, I was not able to write down everything that Ken Kohl said. He was on a roll, performing for a courtroom packed with reporters. But I think the judge had already made up his mind before Kohl even began. Once the judge determined that all of the sentencing factors weighed against Trinidad, Trinidad‚s fate was sealed. Kohl’s presentation was a political speech delivered with great impact. The judge just sat there listening politely, already having calculated the sentence.

Then Trinidad’s court appointed lawyer, Bob Tucker, took the podium. He rejected the comparison of his client to Osama bin Laden, and reminded the court that a harsh sentence will not, as Kohl likes to insist, convince the FARC to release the three Americans. He reminded the court of Trinidad’s cooperation with US authorities in writing a letter to [FARC commander] Raul Reyes, asking for proof of life (something demanded by some members of the US Congress) and asking that he not be included in a prisoner exchange. The prosecutors weren’t giving him any credit for that. Tucker also argued that the US government should change it’s policy regarding negotiating for the release of hostages. This prompted a response from the Judge, who answered “I don’t have anything to do with that.”

Then Tucker got to the heart of the case. “The idea that there is not a war is totally fanciful.” These kinds of negotiations, he said, were not unusual. Trinidad’s mission to Ecuador was compared to Henry Kissinger’s trip to Paris during the Vietnam war. Punishing Trinidad will discourage future negotiations, he said, while lenient treatment would send a message that the court is an independent branch of government. Tucker also noted that in the cases relied on by the prosecution to calculate the sentence, the defendants had not only personally kidnapped people, but also killed them. He referred to jury notes asking the judge to explain the minimum participation by Trinidad that would be sufficient to convict him, and argued that the minimal participation should weigh against a heavy sentence.

Then the judge asked Simon Trinidad whether he wanted to say anything. Trinidad obviously did. He spoke for an hour, and although I was unable to write it all down verbatim, I believe I got most of what he wanted to say.

Simon Trinidad’s Statement at his Sentencing Hearing for Hostage Taking

After thanking the judge for his help with medical and other problems he’d had at the DC Jail, and for permitting the meeting with Piedad Cordoba, and thanking the US Marshalls and others working at the court for the respect with which he’s been treated, Simón Trinidad began his statement by saying that he was speaking today as a member of the FARC, an insurgent group that had taken up arms against the Colombian government.

From the moment of its inception, the FARC had struggled to change an oligarchical system that had maintained itself over the years through blood and fire. Beginning on July 20, 1964, the FARC had sought peaceful democratic change through the masses, but the oligarquia had used paid assassins—pajaros, chulavitas, and now paramilitaries—to terrorize the population with the power of the bullet. Nelson Mandela, who founded a guerrilla movement in South Africa and later rose to become president of that country, said it is the oppressor who always dictates the terms of the struggle, not the oppressed. In Colombia, the oppressor is the oligarchy and the use of force against the people is what led to the formation of the FARC.

The FARC, he said, are a part of the Colombian people who express their dissent in various ways to the violent and elitist regime. Founded by campesinos like [FARC top commander] Manuel Marulanda, the FARC’s efforts have centered on agrarian issues and the protection of campesinos. Created by campesinos and workers, the FARC fights for the improvement of wages, unionization, and has a political strategy against the oppressors.

Citing [FARC commanders] Ciro Trujillo and Hernando Gomez Acosta, Trinidad said the FARC respects indigenous and womens’ organizations, and believes in a pluralistic and democratic Colombia. Latin America, he continued, is a region of great economic disparity and is third in the world in social disparity. The FARC supports the basic human rights that everyone needs to lead a dignified life, including access to nutrition, education, potable water, electricity, dignified living conditions, recreation and rest. Some 54% of Colombians, he said, or 24 million people, live below the poverty line, living on just $1-2 dollars a day.

A variety of fertile lands and climates would permit the harvesting of crops in Colombia 12 months of the year, providing enough for all Colombians as well as a surplus for export. Colombia is also rich, he said, in mineral resources, including gold, nickel, coal, salt and oil. Colombia’s biodiversity, in flora and fauna, the fish in its rivers, and a wealth in human resources make Colombia a very rich country able to provide for all of its inhabitants.

Nevertheless, a small group of people, the petty governing class, has monopolized these resources, taken the best lands, controlled the economy, and kept the rest of Colombia in poverty. Leaders of both Liberal and Conservative parties have legalized these monopolies for the benefit of the rich, and by the same token, handed over Colombia’s resources to foreign capitalists for their own enrichment.

The oligarchy’s policy of violence utilizes murder, torture and disappearances as tools against their opponents to keep themselves in power. Examples range from the genocide of the Gaitanista movement in the 1940s to the extermination of the Union Patriotica in the late 1980s. The three branches of power in the government have granted themselves impunity for all of their crimes, as well as those of the military and paramilitaries.

The unjust character of the government, where immorality and cynicism have been the norm, and its corruption are shown through the management of the people’s money paid as taxes, and the mismanagement of state-run industries. The government has abused its power by selling the nation’s resources to foreigners. It’s true that in Colombia, those who govern are elected every four years, but democracy isn’t just voting, and 65% of Colombians typically abstain from voting anyway. Large numbers of votes are bought. Voters are promised a job. Dead people vote. Others vote more than once. The electoral process in Colombia is illegitimate and a farce.

In the last 14 years, the presidency of Colombia has been manipulated by drug traffickers. The Cali cartel contributed $6.5 million dollars to the campaign of Ernesto Samper. Andres Pastrana was furious when he didn‚t receive the support of this cartel, and it took him four more years to become President. An August 2, 2002 report of the US Defense Intelligence Agency describing Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel lists both [paramilitary leader] Fidel Castaño and Alvaro Uribe as members. After his election, Uribe gave public contracts and political offices to his friends in an effort to reform the constitution so he could be re-elected a second time automatically. This is the best picture that can be drawn of Colombian democracy. It is a paper democracy, but what is described in the papers is far from the truth.

Colombia has been at war for more than 60 years, with a growing participation of the USA. Today the war against the insurgents is disguised behind other arguments. The war on drug trafficking is a disguise the US uses for greater interference in the Colombian conflict, sending advisors, spies, weapons, and investing millions of dollars in the war. This financial and military support emboldens the oligarchy and sustains the conditions that cause the Colombian conflict, but provides no solutions. Simon Bolivar said that “the destiny of the US was to plague America with misery in the name of liberty.”

The US government, and some members of the US Congress have misunderstood the Colombian conflict as being centered around drugs. Although in Colombia there are no serious ethnic, religious, or separatist divisions, the conflict has deep social and historical roots that have nothing to do with drug trafficking. The FARC do not share the Colombian government’s belief in a military solution to the conflict. This conflict is harmful to the dignity of the Colombian people. Instead, the FARC advocates social investment and the participation of communities in the planning of agriculture and crop substitution. The military strategy should be changed. The US and Colombian governments should work together to confront the challenges that face humanity. No country has the exclusive power to lead the fight in this area. The international community must have a greater participation, particularly countries where drugs are consumed.

Simon Trinidad said he was quite surprised when the Department of Justice introduced clumsily altered videos, made by the Colombian military, to try to prove that he was a member of the Secretariado of the FARC. He said he was sorry he never saw the letter sent by the US authorities to the Colombian government, because he was sure that a serious complaint must have been made about this mockery of justice. If the Colombian army can shamelessly lie to the people who provide them with so much money, just imagine what they are doing in Colombia.

Trinidad said his trial was political. The political nature of his trial proves the political nature of the FARC. Politics, he said, is an expression of economics, and war was the expresion of politics by other means. His trial was political from beginning to end. At least, he said, his trial allowed him the opportunity to explain the FARC’s revolutionary philosophy and the position of its Secretariado on various issues, and he is satisfied that despite great efforts, the jury could not find him guilty of supporting a terrorist organization, because the United States had erroneously classified the FARC as a terrorist organization.

Trinidad said that because he and his organization, the FARC, had been labelled a terrorist organization, he wanted to take the opportunity to condemn all terrorism, regardless of the source. Don’t forget, he said, that the terrorist faction of the state was what brought him to become a member of the FARC to combat it. Based on his own principles and ideological conviction, he could not condone terrorism. Like the FARC, he felt that any force that wants to rise to power cannot engage in terrorism.

By the same token, though, he rejects the extradition of Colombians to be tried in other countries. This is a neo-colonial practice that undermines the sovereignty of the country. It is used as a weapon to blackmail men and women fighting for a just cause, including Sonia and himself.

In Colombia there is a war, with prisoners taken on both sides. This is a very real problem that demands a solution. The political order that came from Trinidad’s superiors was a first step to carry out a humanitarian action meant to benefit prisoners on both sides. “My conscience absolves me. I join the ranks of those that history can and has absolved.”

Trinidad said he was also satisfied with the letter he wrote to Manuel Marulanda requesting proof of life of the three Americans, and still he does not want to be an obstacle for the exchange of prisoners. He is convinced that this will be an important factor in achieving peace with social justice in Colombia. The first point on the FARC’s political platform is to find a political solution to the conflict.

Trinidad said it was his sincerest wish that the three Americans are returned safe and sound to the bosoms of their loved ones. He had already met with officials from the State Department, and would be willing to have further meetings to continue the dialog. He said that when he joined the FARC, he knew he could lose his life and liberty fighting for justice and peace in his country.

Finally, Trinidad thanked the Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera and quoted the Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti: “What Bolivar didn’t do remains undone today.” Trinidad concluded his statement with the following words, which he spoke in the same tone of voice as the rest:

Long live Manuel Marulanda
Long live the FARC
Long live Simon Bolivar, whose sword of freedom continues to run through America.

After hearing all this, Judge Lamberth looked Trinidad in the eyes, said he respected Trinidad’s intelligence, sincerity, and eloquence, and then proceeded to sentence him to 60 years, the longest sentence ever imposed on a Colombian. Trinidad had gone over the line, explained the judge, when he joined this conspiracy. His crime was terrorism, a heinous and barbaric crime that violated the law of nations. No civilized nation will tolerate terrorism, he concluded, and this was a court of law. The maximum sentence allowed for hostage taking was life imprisonment, said the judge, but he would abide by the wishes of the Colombian government and only impose a term of 60 years. “Good luck to you, Mr. Palmera Piñeda.”

Paul Wolf on the scene in Washington DC

See our last posts on Colombia and the FARC.

  1. FARC Negotiator Story – Terrific
    Many, many thanks to Paul Wolf for being in the courtroom on the day of Simon Trinidad’s sentencing. It is a terrible miscarriage of justice. Additional thanks to Paul for summarizing Trinidad’s statement before sentencing. It was truly moving and revolutionary all the way.

    This is one story that never would have seen the light of day if Paul had not been there.