World

Warlord Mancuso is extradited back to Colombia after serving sentence in US

Salvatore Mancuso is accused of being involved in more than 1,500 killings and disappearances.

Former Colombian paramilitary leader, Salvatore Mancuso, centre, is met by immigration officials in Bogota (Colombian Immigration Agency via AP)
Salvatore Mancuso Former Colombian paramilitary leader, Salvatore Mancuso, centre, is met by immigration officials in Bogota (Colombian Immigration Agency via AP) (AP)

Colombian warlord Salvatore Mancuso was sent to his native country on Tuesday after serving a drug trafficking sentence in the United States and being denied several requests to be sent to Italy, where he also has citizenship.

Mancuso arrived in Bogota’s El Dorado Airport on a charter flight that also carried dozens of Colombians who were deported from the US after illegally crossing the southern border.

Mancuso was quickly taken into police custody, wearing a green helmet and a bullet-proof vest.

Human rights organizations and government officials in Colombia hope that Mancuso will co-operate with the justice system and provide information about hundreds of crimes that took place when paramilitary groups fought leftist rebels in rural Colombia in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“This event marks an important step towards reconciliation and the construction of a lasting peace in Colombia,” said Fernando Garcia, the director of Colombia’s national immigration service.

Mancuso, 59, was one of the leaders of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary group founded by cattle ranchers who fought against leftist rebels during one of the most violent stretches of Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict.

He will remain in prison in Colombia, where courts have judged him responsible for more than 1,500 acts of murder and disappearances.

He will attempt to get a reduced sentence, and possibly a release from prison, from a transitional justice system created by Colombia’s 2016 peace deal.

Victims of the nation’s conflict are hoping that Mancuso helps shed light on hundreds of murders and forced disappearances carried out by paramilitary fighters, including extrajudicial executions where victims were buried in mass graves.

In multiple hearings with Colombian judges, including some by teleconference while in US custody, the former warlord has spoken of his dealings with politicians, and of the potential involvement of high-ranking politicians in war crimes.

But his extradition to the United States in 2008 on drug trafficking charges had slowed down investigations.

“When Mancuso was extradited, truth was extradited, as well as justice and reparations for victims,” said Jose Melendez, a human rights lawyer who represents war victims in northern Colombia.

“We welcome him. And want him to tell the truth about the multi-national companies, the businessmen and the government ministers who helped with the creation of paramilitary groups.”

Mancuso is the son of an Italian immigrant. His lawyers had requested he be deported to Italy, where he is a citizen, arguing his life would be in danger in Colombia.

U.S. officials decided instead to send Mancuso to Colombia, whose government requested his extradition in 2020, arguing that his return to the country was vital for the investigation of war crimes.

“The problem Mancuso has is that if he talks too much he could get killed,” said Laura Bonilla, a researcher of Colombia’s conflict for the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.