By ANDREW SELSKY
BOGOTA, Colombia – An imprisoned rebel leader wanted in the United States on drug trafficking, kidnapping and terror charges said in an interview published Thursday that he was innocent and was framed by American agents, but he believed his extradition was imminent.
Ricardo Palmera, who went under the nom de guerre Simon Trinidad, would be the first member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, extradited to the United States from Colombia. He was captured a year ago in Ecuador and brought to Colombia, where he is in a maximum-security prison.
Palmera — the most senior Colombian rebel leader ever captured in Colombia — was sentenced in May to 35 years in prison for aggravated kidnapping and rebellion.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said this month he will extradite Palmera to the United States for trial unless the FARC releases dozens of hostages, including three U.S. military contractors, by Dec. 30.
The Roman Catholic Church, which has acted as a mediator in Colombia’s 40-year conflict, asked Uribe to extend the deadline by a month. The president has not yet formulated a response, his office said Thursday.
In an interview published Thursday in a Bogota newspaper, Palmera said he considered his extradition «a sure thing.» Palmera also told El Espectador that the president’s ultimatum did not specify what would happen to him if the FARC released their hostages.
Palmera is accused by a U.S. federal court in Washington of trafficking 11 pounds or more of cocaine to the United States, kidnapping and providing material support to terrorists. In written responses to questions posed by El Espectador, Palmera proclaimed his innocence and accused unnamed FBI (news – web sites) and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents of lying.
«I’m not a drug trafficker or a terrorist,» Palmera told the newspaper in his first comments to the media since his capture. «I will not only demonstrate this in the courtrooms of the United States, but will wage the battle in the political field.
«The Colombian government believed they could dampen my revolutionary zeal with extradition, but this will never happen.»
The rebel commander, who was a banker in the northern town of Valledupar before joining the guerrilla movement two decades ago, said his extradition would «close all avenues» for any possible exchange of rebel-held hostages for guerrillas in Colombian jails. The rebels have offered to make such a swap but Uribe has refused, not wanting freed rebels to return to the FARC’s ranks and continue waging war.
Both the Colombian and U.S. government consider the FARC — which traffics in drugs, kidnaps and extorts — to be a terrorist organization.
Palmera is one of the best-known members of the FARC, which, along with a smaller leftist rebel group, has waged war for 40 years to topple the government. The conflict kills more than 3,000 people every year.
Authorities said Thursday that five soldiers were killed after walking into a FARC mine field in near Ortega, 100 miles southwest of Bogota, on Wednesday.
Palmera was a principal negotiator during peace talks with the administration of then-President Andres Pastrana. Those talks collapsed in February 2002.
By ANDREW SELSKY