Palmera Piñeda Sentenced

Simón Trinidad [nom de guerre of Ricardo Palmera Piñeda], the FARC’s well-known prisoner-exchange negotiator, was today sentenced to 60 years in prison in Federal District Court in Washington, DC. Several months ago, Trinidad was found guilty of conspiracy to take three [US] military contractors as hostages, a crime occurring back in 2003. The sentence was determined in a separate proceeding held today.

The 60 year penalty, the maximum allowable under Colombian law, is a relatively new invention. In 2004, under a program funded and administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Colombia reformed its penal code (Law 890, which modified Article 31) to increase the maximum allowable penalty from 40 to 60 years. As one of the first beneficiaries of the legal reform, it seems fitting that the punishment would be calculated in Washington. Even more so because this penalty didn‚t even exist in Colombia back in 2003 when the crime was committed.

The penalty was calculated according to the US federal sentencing guidelines. Factors used to calculate the sentence included whether a demand was made for the release of the hostages, whether a weapon was used, the length of time the hostages were held, whether Trinidad accepted responsibility for the crime, and the relative importance of his role in it. Another factor—and a big one—was whether taking the three contractors prisoner was an act of “terrorism”—i.e., a violent crime intended to intimidate a government and extract a concession from it.

The defense argued that Trinidad’s “agreement”—a conspiracy is essentially an agreement to commit a crime—was limited to taking a letter from FARC commander Raul Reyes to Ecuador, to present to James LeMoyne, a UN official who had brokered the FARC’s negotiations with the government of President Andres Pastrana. Trinidad didn’t have the mens rea, or guilty mental state, had never made any demand for the hostages’ release, had no say in whether they ever would be released, and has never even seen the hostages.

Nevertheless, the judge found against Trinidad for every sentencing factor, indicating the maximum penalty available for this crime, which under US law would be life imprisonment. However, the judge noted that he would respect the wishes of the Colombian government, which asked for the sentence to be limited to 60 years, in accordance with the new law. Judge Lamberth acquiesced and sentenced Trinidad to 60 years without parole.

During the “allocution” phase of the hearing, prosecutor Ken Kohl gave a dramatic presentation about the evils of the FARC, the seriousness of the offense, and his low opinion of the defendant. He believed this case should be an opportunity to, as he put it, “educate” the FARC and show them that they could be subjected to criminal prosecution in the US if captured. He said that the FARC had kidnapped or killed 21 North Americans in its history, and that Simon Trinidad was the first FARC member ever convicted of terrorism.

Kohl repeated the claim, promoted by [Colombian vice president and former Medellín cartel hostage] Francisco Santos‘ group Pais Libre, that the FARC are currently holding 700 people hostage. It’s worth noting that [President] Alvaro Uribe does not make this claim. Just this weekend he stated in an interview to Euronews, that the Colombian government blames 700 kidnappings over the past ten years on the FARC. This is a very small percentage of the total number of kidnappings which occurred in Colombia over this period—perhaps 2-3%. And there is no reason to believe those 700 people are even alive. It’s certainly not something the prosecutor could prove in court, or that the judge should consider in calculating Trinidad’s sentence.

Kohl emphasized that Trinidad should be punished as a terrorist “because,” he said as he pointed at the defendant, “that’s what he is. A terrorist.” Kohl described various notorious crimes committed by the FARC, such as the kidnapping and subsequent (and still unclear) deaths of eleven deputies abducted in Cali, the abduction of Alan Jarra while riding in a UN vehicle, and the kidnapping of Elias Ochoa, which the prosecution used as
character evidence in Trinidad’s first trial. Kohl argued that Trinidad had knowledge of all of these crimes, as well as knowing [prominent FARC captive] Ingrid Betancourt personally, who, he said, had pled with the FARC to stop kidnapping, and paid the price with her freedom.

As Kohl described Trinidad’s “exploiting the agony” of the hostages, a large flat screen TV displayed photos of prisoners in barbed wire camps, of Ingrid Betancourt, and of the three North Americans, both before their capture, and in the recent “proof of life” photos. The FARC, he said, is not a populist movement. There is nothing noble or inspiring about it. Photos of the FARC in uniform were an illusion. The FARC wore them at the time of the despeje [FARC-controlled demilitarized zone], but otherwise, he said, the FARC was a clandestine organization. Of the 16,000 members of the FARC, 8,000 had recently deserted. Kohl showed a photo of a mass demonstration in Bogotá with a sign that said “Down with the FARC.” Again pointing at Trinidad, Kohl reminded the judge that negotiations for the release of the three Americans “had to go through this man.”

“The callousness and brutality of this crime is hard to comprehend. It is impossible to overstate how horrific and barbaric this crime is,” he continued, “the product of Simon Trinidad’s crazed, warped sense of social justice.” Trinidad was responsible not only for this crime, said Kohl, but also for brainwashing other guerrillas, even recruiting one of the reinsertado [demobilized guerilla fighters] witnesses, who testified that Trinidad induced him to join the FARC with champagne and the promise of girls. “If the guerrillas who carried out these abductions were the paws of the beast, Simon Trinidad was it’s mouth,” he observed.

Kohl believed that nothing good had come of previous peace negotiations with the FARC. These negotiations only helped the FARC take more hostages and produce more cocaine. For 20 years, he said, Simon Trinidad had been sending out teams of kidnappers and was responsible for numerous crimes not before the court. He “drank the kool aid,” according to Kohl. He was even like Osama bin Laden. Kohl said bin Laden was hiding in a cave in Afghanistan.

To tell the truth, I was not able to write down everything that Ken Kohl said. He was on a roll, performing for a courtroom packed with reporters. But I think the judge had already made up his mind before Kohl even began. Once the judge determined that all of the sentencing factors weighed against Trinidad, Trinidad‚s fate was sealed. Kohl’s presentation was a political speech delivered with great impact. The judge just sat there listening politely, already having calculated the sentence.

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