Colombian warlord linked to over 1,500 murders and disappearances released from prison

Colombian warlord Salvatore Mancuso was released from prison Wednesday in the South American country after repeatedly asking courts to grant his freedom and promising to collaborate in the government’s rapprochement with illegal armed groups.

Mancuso, a leader of a paramilitary group founded by cattle ranchers, was repatriated from the United States in February after serving a 12-year drug trafficking sentence and then spending three years in an immigration detention facility while officials decided whether to send him to Colombia or Italy, where he also is a citizen.

After returning to Colombia, Mancuso appeared before various courts, which eventually notified corrections authorities that they no longer had any pending detention orders for him. The country’s courts had found him responsible for more than 1,500 acts of murder and disappearances during one of the most violent periods of Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict.

Colombia Mancuso
In this photo released by the Colombian Immigration agency, migration officials meet former Colombian paramilitary leader, Salvatore Mancuso, second from left, at the gate of the plane at El Dorado International Airport in Bogota, Colombia, Feb. 27, 2024, upon arrival from the U.S. which deported him after he served time for drug trafficking.

/ AP

Human rights organizations and government officials in Colombia hope Mancuso will cooperate 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. Mancuso’s United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym AUC, fought against leftist rebels.

In multiple hearings with Colombian judges, including some held by teleconference while he was in U.S. custody, the former warlord spoke of his dealings with politicians, and of the potential involvement of high-ranking politicians in war crimes.  

Mancuso was born to a wealthy family in northwest Colombia and was a prosperous cattle rancher. He began to collaborate with the country’s army in the early 1990s after his family was threatened by rebel groups who demanded extortion payments. He then transitioned from providing intelligence to the military, to leading operations against leftist rebels.

Mancuso, who appeared on CBS‘ 60 Minutes in 2008 for a report on Chiquita Brands International paying paramilitaries nearly $2 million, helped negotiate a deal with the Colombian government in 2003 that granted more than 30,000 paramilitaries reduced prison sentences in exchange for giving up their arms and demobilizing. As part of the deal, the paramilitaries had to truthfully confess to all crimes, or face much harsher penalties.

Despite his role in the agreement, Mancuso was extradited to the U.S. in 2008, along with other paramilitary leaders wanted in drug trafficking cases. He was sentenced in 2015 for facilitating the shipment of more than 130 tons of cocaine to U.S. soil. Prosecutors accused him of turning to drug trafficking to finance his armed group.

U.S. federal prosecutors said Mancuso — who also went by the names El Mono and Santander Lozada — had admitted that his organization transported cocaine to the coastal areas of Colombia, „where it was loaded onto go-fast boats and other vessels for ultimate transportation to the United States and Europe.“

Colombian corrections authorities said Wednesday that they had notified the National Protection Unit, a group in charge of protecting people at high risk of threat or attack, of Mancuso’s release, so it can follow procedures to guarantee his safety.

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