BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The arrest of a high-ranking former rebel leader on drug trafficking charges is threatening to throw Colombia's already fragile peace process into new uncertainty as those for and against the accord on ending a 50-year conflict consider the next steps forward.
A day after the surprise arrest of Seuxis Hernandez, best known by the alias Jesus Santrich, opponents of the peace accord urged authorities to investigate other leaders of the disbanded FARC rebel army for any ties to the drug trade.
Former FARC combatants, meanwhile, accused U.S. and Colombian officials of orchestrating a setup likely to sow further skepticism among ex-rebels already frustrated by the peace deal's slow implementation and worried about its future.
"If Colombia rushes to extradite him for some reason before the process runs its course, it could be a near fatal blow to the peace process," said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.
A U.S. indictment accuses Santrich and three others of conspiring to distribute 10,000 kilograms of cocaine with a wholesale value of $15 million in the United States and purporting to have access to drug labs and U.S.-registered planes for transport.
His case will go first to Colombia's newly created Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a justice system for the transition under the peace accord. Though most rebels who fully confess their crimes will be spared any jail time, the lenient terms apply only to crimes committed before Dec. 1, 2016, when the accord was signed.
U.S. prosecutors allege Santrich's preparations to traffic drugs took place after that date. If the peace court agrees, it would send Santrich's case to the ordinary justice system and he could be extradited.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, called the extradition request the "first litmus test" for the fledging transitional justice system, one of the peace accord's key points of contention. He added that only by delivering a "rigorous and transparent ruling" can the special peace jurisdiction prove that it is a credible system.
Since Colombia's government and leftist rebels signed the peace agreement, former combatants have turned over their weapons and begun transitioning to life as civilians. But the process has been beset by repeated delays. Ex-rebels arrived at transition zones only to find that many still didn't have basic utilities like running water. Congress has stalled in implementing key aspects of the accord.
Dissident groups of former rebels continue to swell in ranks, with some estimates suggesting their numbers have doubled to 3,000 over the last year.
"I think Colombia's future, if this keeps happening, is going to look exactly like Colombia's past," Isacson said.
Dissident rebels still operating in FARC zones where the state has little presence continue to operate drug routes and are believed to cooperate with Mexican drug cartels as Colombia's coca production skyrockets.
There has long been speculation over whether former FARC leaders have continued communication with dissident factions, but Santrich's arrest marks the first case of a high-ranking leader involved in the peace process being formally charged with continuing to engage in criminal activity.
Jeremy McDermott, executive director of InSightCrime, a group that studies organized crime in Latin America, said many former guerrillas may fear a repeat of what happened to demobilized paramilitary commanders a decade ago, when more than a dozen leaders were extradited by then President Alvaro Uribe after reaching a peace accord with the government.
"The guerrillas may well fear this is a potential future scenario for them," he said.
The FARC long funded their insurgency by leveling a "war tax" on cocaine moving through territory the rebels dominated, and 50 members of its leadership structure — though not Santrich — were indicted in 2006 in the U.S. on charges of running the world's largest drug cartel.
But the rebels always denied direct involvement in the business itself and rebel peace negotiators in 2013 denounced drug trafficking as a "scourge" that has "contaminated" the international financial system and generated a global health crisis.
More recently, Colombia's government has credited former rebels with helping implement a crop substitution program aimed at providing an alternative livelihood to poor peasants growing coca.
Santrich, the son of two teachers, was one of the first rebel leaders to bet on peace, making his arrest all the more surprising. He went to Norway in 2012 to begin negotiations with Colombia's government and then participated in talks that continued the next four years in Cuba, where he earned a reputation as being a hard-line ideologue.
In recent months, Santrich had campaigned for a seat in congress. Often dressed in a poncho and sunglasses at FARC events, Santrich has been regarded among ex-combatants as one of the most important voices of the group's new political movement.
FARC leader Griselda Lobo, alias Sandra Ramirez, said Santrich's arrest has former rebels wondering who might be next, though the stressed that the FARC remains committed to the peace accord.
"Of course it generates alarm," she said. "But we are calling on people to think with a cool head."