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The empty chair at Colombia’s peace talks
Question of the Day
Colombia’s government hasn’t yet asked, so “it is a hypothetical question,” said William Brownfield, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for law enforcement and counternarcotics, who was ambassador to Bogota in 2007-2010.
“We are very comfortable with where he is at this moment,” Brownfield told The Associated Press.
The formal peace talks had been scheduled to start on Thursday in Havana, but the government and rebels on Tuesday announced a four-day delay. It was unclear why they decided to push back the talks until Monday.
Some Americans would certainly object at any move to free Palmera.
“He’s been convicted of a crime and he needs to pay out his sentence,” said Marc Gonsalves, one of the three U.S. men who became pawns in the FARC prisoner swap scheme. They were captured in February 2003 when a mechanical failure caused their surveillance plane to crash in rebel territory. They say they were on a counter-drug mission. The FARC says they were spying.
“When I was a hostage my family and my friends tried to send me correspondence. They tried to send me letters, they tried to send me things to help me survive in the jungle. They tried to find out if I was even dead or alive,” said Gonsalves.
“But the FARC, including Simon Trinidad, would not allow us to receive any word from the outside world,” he said. “Instead they locked me in a box. They put a chain around my neck. They pointed a rifle at my back.”
Two trials on cocaine trafficking charges ended in hung juries and an appeals court found prosecution irregularities in the conspiracy case that convicted him. Even so, it denied his motion for a retrial, saying there was no doubt Palmera conspired “to detain several American citizens to be used as bargaining chips.”
Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana remembers a different Palmera. The men shared the same circle of friends as university students in the early 1970s in Bogota.
“Simon always distinguished himself as the best, the brightest. He was a sharp dresser and went out with the prettiest girls,” Pastrana said.
“He was the best off of all of us. He was the only one who had a credit card at that time,” added Pastrana, whose own father was Colombia’s president in those years.
After college in Bogota, Palmera moved back to his hometown of Valledupar on the Caribbean coast, where a semi-feudal society persisted. Peasants had little access to land, health care and sanitation.
In 1979, friends say, Palmera’s sense of outrage was stirred when soldiers detained him for five days, accusing him of being a guerrilla during a roundup of people who had associated with leftist activists. The family pulled strings to get him freed. Three other men picked up in the same raid would later be killed.
Palmera oversaw the family cattle ranch and cotton crop. He and his wife, Margarita Russo, both managed banks while he taught economics at the local public university. The couple got involved in politics backing Luis Carlos Galan, a center-left politician who would later be assassinated on orders of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar while running for president.
In the mid-1980s, the FARC reached a truce with the government and formed a political wing called the Patriotic Union. The political circle in which the Palmeras were active, Common Cause, decided to join.
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