Ex-AUC paramilitary Salvatore Mancuso granted freedom by Bogotá Court

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Ex-paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso arrived back in Colombia after serving a 16-year prison sentence in the U.S. Photo: Migración Colombia.
Ex-paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso arrived back in Colombia after serving a 16-year prison sentence in the U.S. Photo: Migración Colombia.

The Justice and Peace Chamber of Bogotá’s High Court has ordered the immediate release of Salvatore Mancuso, the former paramilitary commander of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The ruling comes after two prior judicial setbacks that prevented the 59-year-old warlord from regaining his freedom. The court’s decision marks a pivotal moment in Mancuso’s legal journey, which has spanned over two decades since he demobilized in 2003 under the terms of a peace agreement offered by former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

With his extradition to the United States in 2008, during the same administration of the former two-term conservative leader, Mancuso was accused of involvement in drug trafficking and other crimes. After 16 years behind bars in a U.S maximum-security penitentiary, the son of Italian immigrants was handed-over to Colombian authorities on February 27.

Upon his return, Mancuso immediately sought his release, invoking his cooperation with the transitional justice system created with the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian Government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) was established to address crimes committed during the country’s armed conflict. Mancuso’s path to freedom still faces hurdles should Colombia’s Supreme Court reverse the tribunal’s decision. The former convict back still faces outstanding warrants amounting to over 40-years in a Colombian prison.

During a virtual hearing on Wednesday, magistrate José Manuel Parra delivered the long-awaited verdict, revoking the 57 security measures that had kept Mancuso incarcerated. The decision, while applauded by some, has stirred controversy, particularly in light of Mancuso’s past crimes and the ongoing pursuit of justice for victims of paramilitary violence.

The legal intricacies of Mancuso’s case highlight the complexities of Colombia’s transitional justice system. Despite his involvement in heinous crimes, Mancuso’s cooperation with truth-seeking efforts and his adherence to legal proceedings have prompted debate about the balance between accountability and reconciliation in the post-conflict. While many victims of internal conflict view his freedom as a step towards closure, others argue that it undermines efforts to hold perpetrators accountable and deliver justice.

In response to the court’s decision, Mancuso expressed gratitude, acknowledging his new legal conditions. Conditions that include restrictions on leaving the country, prohibition from carrying weapons, and mandatory appearances before judicial authorities and reintegration agencies.

As Salvatore Mancuso steps out of La Picota prison in Bogotá, the warlord claims he intends to cooperate with the justice system and provide information about hundreds of crimes committed by the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) during the late 1990s and early 2000s, and how AUC paramilitaries worked alongside the country’s armed forces to boost the body count of guerrillas allegedly killed in combat.

Mancuso’s testimonies as part of being a “peace envoy” for leftist President Gustavo Petro could potentially influence the criminal case facing Uribe Vélez on charges of witness tampering and procedural fraud. Mancuso has confessed his co-responsibility for numerous massacres committed in the department of Antioquia and along the Colombian coast during the Uribe administration. The former high ranking commander of the AUC is responsible for 1,500 murders.

“I come to continue with my commitments to the victims, but at the same time, I come to put myself at the service of a peace agenda that will prevent Colombia from being an eternal factory of victims and collective pain,” said Mancuso upon his repatriation.