Travel options for the Columbia Three

  • 22 December 2004
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The Colombia Three have been quickly forgotten in Colombia, writes Michael McCaughan

The three Irishmen sentenced in Bogota have vanished without a trace. And despite some hand-wringing in Ireland, few Latin Americans appear to give a damn.

In Colombia the issue is dead and buried: there was not an editorial, opinion column or letter in the media all week. Colombia's bitter 40-year internal conflict has left 2 million citizens displaced and 1.5 million more have fled the country in the past 10 years alone. Thousands of innocents die violent deaths each year, but the armed conflict, largely restricted to remote rural areas, has little impact on the general population.

In my conversations with Colombian acquaintances since their sentencing, the general opinion was that the three men must have been up to something and should thus be punished. But Colombians distrust their judiciary and police force and it's a rare thing to come across a Colombian who has had a satisfactory experience at the hands of the country's judicial system.

The three Irishmen were never directly linked to acts of violence in Colombia and their presence in the country has had a negligible effect on an insurgency which has refined its methods over half a century. Figures just released show violent murders down 16 per cent in 2004, massacres down 52 per cent and the deaths of trade unionists down 72 per cent, roughly translating into 8,000 lives saved from an early grave.

The deaths were avoided for two reasons: a government peace process with the right-wing paramilitaries who have been responsible for most of the massacres; and a major army offensive against left-wing rebels which has pushed them deeper into their jungle hideaways and restricted their ability to engage in combat.

When Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley were acquitted of the charges of training FARC rebels last April they were released on bail and promptly disappeared.

The Colombian authorities were aware since June that the three men had failed to turn up at scheduled weekly meetings with migration officials. Why didn't the authorities immediately raise the alarm and publicly demand to know the whereabouts of the three men, as agreed when bail was granted?

The relaxed Colombian attitude has mirrored elsewhere since their conviction. A US State Department official said the Colombian case "has no effect" on the Northern peace process and suggested the issue was not of major importance to the Bush administration. In Ireland the Government and the SDLP agreed that the sentences handed down to the men were too severe and only Ian Paisley Jr and Mary Harney showed any enthusiasm for Colombia's judicial system.

Latin America has proven itself a safe haven for fugitives in the past, with Nazi war criminals living openly in Paraguay and Chile and hundreds of US criminals decamping to Mexico to avoid jail time at home. These days a smart fugitive with left-wing credentials would head straight to Venezuela, where progressive President Hugo Chavez is set to govern until 2013 – plenty of time to consider alternative options.

President Chavez is a harsh critic of US foreign policy and has some sympathy for FARC rebels. Chavez has refused to extradite Colombian rebels living in Venezuela despite repeated requests.

The next best bet is Cuba, which has sheltered hundreds of global revolutionaries over the past 45 years. However Fidel Castro's days are numbered and the Cuban government was embarrassingly quick to confirm that Niall Connolly was indeed SF representative on the island, even as SF fudged the issue.

It is unlikely that the three men would be able to hide in Cuba without their identities being revealed.

Uruguay is another possibility as a new left-wing government, due to assume office in March, is actively anti-extradition and has opposed attempts to hand over ETA suspects to Spanish authorities in the past.

The truth is that any small community in Ecuador, Peru or Brazil could swallow up the three men indefinitely. While formal extradition treaties do not exist between many Latin American countries, informal arrangements of "mutual assistance" permit the transfer of prisoners or suspects where deemed politically expedient.

In Mexico and Argentina fugitives have simply been snatched from their hiding places and unceremoniously bundled on to planes and back to their home countries to face trial or be returned to prison. On the other hand, several Colombian police officers are in Venezuelan custody after making an illegal incursion across the border in pursuit of criminals. The Colombian defense is that the men had no idea they had crossed the border, a credible notion given the terrain.

With the exception of Niall Connolly, who has made his life in Cuba, the other two men are unlikely to want to remain so far from home and family, and might well risk their chances in Ireland. Ireland has no extradition treaty with Colombia, nor is it signed up to any relevant international agreement that would link it to Colombia.

As the peace process limps toward some form of solution, there would be little appetite in the State for attempting to return the three men to Colombia. "In a society mired in drug wars, terrorism and corruption, Colombia is far from an ideal world," read an editorial in the Irish Examiner. "That explains why... the men either went underground or fled the country."

Irish and British security sources have attempted to link the fate of these three Irishmen to that of the men convicted in the Jerry McCabe case, a ploy designed to maintain media attention on that issue. However, once the fuss has died down and the McCabe killers are freed, Irish people are unlikely to get worked up over the Colombia Three.

At the time of writing, Irish officials are busy translating the 144-page Colombian court judgment from Spanish into English before making the Government comments on the case.

At a press conference in Bogota, Caítriona Ruane of the Bring Them Home campaign, complained that the lengthy judgment "hardly contained a reference" to the three men's defense arguments. Pedro Maecha, the lawyer for James Monaghan, said the ruling was "blind to the major contradictions of the prosecution witnesses and provides excuses for incorrect dates given for the men being in Colombia. It makes judgments against the three men using laws that were not even introduced at the time."

In the event of the case going to Colombia's Supreme Court, legal experts say there could be a wait of several years before a verdict because of the backlog of cases.