BOGOTA, COLOMBIA —
For years, Edison Prado was one of the top U.S. drug targets in South America, having allegedly risen from beginnings as a boatman running drugs in the treacherous coastal waters of his native Ecuador to the bloodthirsty head of a small army of smugglers spread across five countries.
So it was surprising when the man dubbed the "Pablo Escobar of Ecuador" showed up on a list of hardscrabble leftist rebels from Colombia.
His case and others like it are now at the center of a heated debate about whether powerful drug lords and other criminals are trying to evade justice by exploiting terms of the government's peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — allegations that threaten to undermine already shaky efforts to end a half-century of political violence.
Under the terms of last year's peace deal, FARC rebels will be spared jail time in exchange for laying down their weapons and confessing their war crimes to special peace tribunals. For thousands of onetime FARC members serving long sentences, that's tantamount to a get-out-of-jail card.
But it can also be a powerful magnet for fraud in a country plagued by powerful drug gangs with a long history of meddling in politics.
Earlier this year the FARC handed the government a list of more than 14,000 former guerrillas, jailed rebels and unarmed supporters it claims as members, and who therefore are entitled to benefits under the peace treaty. But Bogota's El Tiempo newspaper reported last month that at least 21 people on the list are actually suspected drug traffickers awaiting extradition to the U.S., with no known history of rebellion.
Former rebel leaders haven't explained how those people got on the list, but the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, told Colombian media this year that imprisoned drug traffickers paid up to $5 million to be included on the FARC's rolls, although he didn't say where he obtained that information. He said the U.S. government would investigate whether specific FARC leaders — who can be jailed for crimes committed after the peace deal's signing — were selling the spots.
The former rebel leader known as Mauricio Jaramillo, who was responsible for compiling the list, vehemently denied the assertion, though he acknowledged mistakes were made and some criminals weaseled their way onto the rolls.
He accused the government of revealing details from what were supposed to be private deliberations to weed out impostors, saying it was trying to distract attention from its own problems — among them a bevy of corruption scandals and a sluggish economy.
"Whenever there's a problem in Colombia they try to use us as a smoke screen to cover up a lot of things," he told The Associated Press.
Damage to peace process
But many Colombians remain unconvinced.
"If nobody is held accountable, this will do serious damage to the credibility of the peace process," said Adam Isacson, an enthusiastic backer of last year's peace deal and an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Prado was arrested in Colombia in April on an indictment by a Florida federal court along with three other suspected Ecuadorean drug traffickers, all of whom the FARC also listed as members. Police accused the ambitious 35-year-old man known as "Gerald" of running the most sophisticated smuggling route on the Pacific coast of South America, likening it to the Medellin cartel of three decades ago because of it sought to dominate the entire cocaine supply chain from production to its distribution in the U.S. Police say the group dispatched as many as 10 high-speed boats a week, each carrying around a ton of cocaine.
Prado's U.S. lawyer declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press.
The FARC's ties to Colombia's flourishing drug underworld have always been a sore spot for the rebels. The FARC long funded itself by leveling a "war tax" on cocaine moving through territory it dominated, and all 50 members of its leadership structure were indicted in 2006 in the U.S. on charges of running the world's largest drug cartel.
But the FARC always denied direct involvement in the business itself, and rebel peace negotiators in 2013 denounced drug trafficking a "scourge" that has "contaminated" the international financial system and generated a global health crisis.
Colombia's government has taken credit for purging the list of the 21 international fugitives through intergovernment investigations. They include a Mexican man indicted by the U.S. in 2015 and thought to be the Zetas cartel's chief envoy in Colombia, as well as two brothers reportedly wanted for extradition by Italy for allegedly supplying drugs to the Calabrian mafia in cahoots with the FARC's battlefield enemies, former right-wing paramilitary groups.
But many others remain suspect: Around 20 percent of those the FARC claimed as members have yet to be certified. A few hundred are prisoners for whom there is no evidence in judicial proceedings identifying them as rebels, according to the government. One of 700 special "peace mediators" claimed by the FARC and slated for early release from prison was a man convicted last year of running a network of hit men in Bogota.
Similar shenanigans took place during a government peace process with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia a decade ago, when 30,000 self-proclaimed paramilitary fighters demobilized, far more than the militias' estimated strength. One infamous drug fugitive, Miguel Mejia, even paid the paramilitaries to list his entire gang as a militia, although he was later expelled from the peace process and extradited to the U.S.
While the filters are stricter now, the fact the FARC was unaware of or possibly even complicit in attempting a similar feat is likely to undermine already weak support for the peace deal just as it's beginning to be implemented, and candidates are bashing the accord's shortcomings ahead of next May's presidential election.
"The FARC are the ones the most hurt by this," said Senator Juan Manuel Galan, a supporter of the peace deal running for the presidency. "If they remain silent, or don't have convincing answers, it generates a lot of uncertainty."