Colombia has requested the extradition of a notorious paramilitary warlord jailed in the US on drug charges, amid fears that he may be deported to Italy – and escape justice for human rights crimes in the Andean nation.
Salvatore Mancuso, 56, led a rightwing paramilitary group which carried out some of the worst violence against civilians during Colombia’s decades-long civil war.
He was convicted in Colombia of more than 1,500 murders and forced disappearances, and confessed to participating in a string of horrific crimes. But in 2008 was extradited to the US where he served 12 years of a 15-year sentence on drug trafficking charges.
When was released in March, his lawyers claimed that he would be killed if he returns to Colombia, and argued that he should instead be deported to Italy, where he also holds citizenship.
From there it is unlikely that he will answer for his crimes in Colombia, as the two countries do not share an extradition treaty.
“Salvatore Mancuso has serious outstanding debts with Colombian justice and for that I reason I have requested his extradition,” Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, tweeted on Thursday morning amid growing outcry over the case. “His crimes will not continue to be met with impunity.”
Mancuso, the well-educated son of an Italian immigrant from Colombia’s cattle-ranching north-west, is the highest-ranking former commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia still alive. He signed off on countless atrocities during a three-way conflict between leftwing rebels and state forces often acting in collusion with the paramilitaries.
In February 2000, militiamen under his command tortured and dismembered more than 60 peasant farmers in the rural village of El Salado, in one of the worst single acts of violence in the five-decade war. Victims – including a six-year-old girl and an elderly woman – were stabbed, beaten and strangled to death.
Yirley Velasco, now 34, was 14 when four of Mancuso’s men pinned her down in front of the village and sexually abused her after killing her neighbours.
“We’re still wearing the scars of what he and his men did to us, every day we are tortured by it, so how could it be fair that he gets to live comfortably in Italy?” she said on Thursday.
The conflict between the Colombian state and leftist rebel groups including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or Farc) left 260,000 dead and displaced over 7 million.
A peace deal was signed with the Farc in 2016, which brought with it a truth and justice tribunal. Campaigners say that Mancuso, who has already implicated high-profile politicians in his crimes, must answer to it.
“He must come to Colombia to tell the truth about the political and business leaders that were involved,” said Iván Cepeda, a prominent leftist senator whose father, a congressman, was murdered by paramilitaries in 1994.
Rosario Montoya, 62, an afro-indigenous organiser from Mancuso’s home-province of Córdoba, was forced to run from one of his death squads in 1987 after many of her neighbours and fellow activists had been murdered.
“They exterminated us and they stole our land and yet only Mancuso knows the truth of what happened,” Montoya said. “We’re not hoping that he gets punished, we’re just hoping to hear who gave him the orders.”