Magazine | November 13, 2017, Issue

Asylum Now

The shocking case of a splendid man

Miami — People can’t talk about this case without referring to Kafka. It is, indeed, Kafkaesque: a nightmare of injustice. “Laughable,” they also say. The case would be laughable if it weren’t so serious — especially for Andrés Felipe Arias and his family.

He is a Colombian political prisoner, in effect. He currently sits in the federal detention center here in Miami. He has asked the United States for asylum but has not been granted a hearing. Instead, a U.S. federal magistrate judge has ordered that he be sent back to Colombia.

Hang on a second: a Colombian political prisoner? That’s a contradiction in terms, isn’t it? Colombia is a democratic country. It’s not like one of its eastern neighbors, Venezuela. Colombia’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year (for negotiating a peace deal with the FARC, Colombia’s longstanding guerrilla army and drug cartel). His predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, was a close ally of George W. Bush — who hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck. A Colombian political prisoner?

These are strange times in Colombia. Jared Genser is one of the lawyers representing Arias. Well-known in the human-rights field, Genser has represented four Nobel peace laureates and countless dissidents. He says he finds it incredible that “the international community has totally ignored” what President Santos has done — apart from his work with the FARC, so to speak.

The story of Andrés Felipe Arias is long and multifaceted, and I will tell it in barest outline. He was born in 1973 and was a whiz kid. In 2002, he earned a Ph.D. in economics from UCLA. He could have made millions on Wall Street, his friends say. But he took a job with the Uribe government, in the ministry of finance. Soon, Uribe made him vice minister of agriculture. In this capacity, Arias helped negotiate the free-trade agreement with the United States. In short order, Uribe made him minister of agriculture.

Let’s pause for a moment for the personal. In 2007, Arias married Catalina Serrano, who has been his rock through this whole ordeal. They have two children, Eloísa (age nine) and Juan Pedro (six). This family is out of Central Casting, I must tell you: attractive, religious, utterly devoted to one another. It makes you burn all the more over what has happened to them.

Back to politics. A presidential election was coming in 2010. Uribe wanted Arias to succeed him. To critics, Arias was “Uribito,” or “little Uribe.” They regarded this young man as an upstart — arrogant, presumptuous. And all too smart. In any case, Arias indeed ran for president. Another man who wanted the job was Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s defense minister. Santos is from a powerful old family, prominent in politics and the media (which intertwine).

Suddenly, the name of Andrés Felipe Arias was all over the media, and not in a positive way: It was engulfed in scandal. Uribists say that Santos, through his connections, blackened his young rival’s name. In any event, what was the ruckus about?

The ministry of agriculture had a program that included subsidies for farmers: farmers large and small (especially small). The subsidies were for irrigation technologies, developed mainly in the United States and Israel. The program was administered, not by the agriculture ministry itself, but by an arm of the Organization of American States. This had been standard practice in Colombia.

More than 385,000 families benefited from the program. A handful of wealthy families tried to scam it. They did so by dividing up their farms and then applying for separate subsidies. Caught, they pleaded guilty. According to their testimony — and according to that of Arias — they had nothing to do with the agriculture minister, nor he with them.

Yet his name was besmirched as corrupt. His enemies said that he was in cahoots with the rich farmers, to fund his political career and advance their interests. Catalina remembers that the family was at lunch in a restaurant one day. The people at the next table got up and left, saying they would not eat in the presence of such corrupt people. Another time, the family was in a shopping mall, and a man started screaming at them: “Look at that family! They stole from the poor farmers to give to the rich ones, and now they are spending the money!”

The scandal tanked the Arias campaign; Santos was elected president.

Upon inauguration, something remarkable happened: Santos turned against the policies of the president he had served — Uribe — and embraced his neighbor, the Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez (“my new best friend,” Santos called him). He sought a deal with the FARC, a deal that Uribe, Arias, and everyone else in that camp strongly opposed. As Uribists tell it, Santos made a kind of war against them, using the justice system to do it.

They joke, darkly, “We could hold our party convention in prison.” Alternatively, Florida.

Arias was arrested in July 2011. His indictment hearing was a spectacle, broadcast live on television. The attorney general, Viviane Morales, released his personal information — address, phone number, and so on. This despite the fact that he had received any number of death threats from narco-terrorists. (The attorney general — since deposed, and now a senator — is a story unto herself. So is her husband, Carlos Alonso Lucio, a former guerrilla. He once found asylum in the Castros’ Cuba.)

The defendant, Arias, was imprisoned for almost two years — 23 months. Technically, he was in “preventive detention.” Three times, he was denied bail, which was finally granted a year into his trial.

That trial was before the supreme court — which gave the justices a juicy opportunity. While president, Uribe had accused some of them of ties to the drug world. And now they had Uribito, his fair-haired boy, in their clutches. The trial dragged on and on, finally concluding in February 2014.

And yet the court kept delaying a verdict. Why? It’s useful to know that 2014 was an election year. The first round of voting was held on May 25. The Uribist candidate, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, led the incumbent, President Santos, by about four percentage points. But neither man won 50 percent, so the election went to a second round — scheduled for June 15. Two days before that election, the supreme court leaked some news: Arias would be convicted. This was, of course, a blow to Zuluaga and the Uribists, who were presented as corrupt. For whatever reason — and however cleanly — Santos won, by about six percentage points, on the 15th.

But back to the 13th. Arias decided that he would have to flee his country. He would go to Miami. And he did so with the blessing of the U.S. embassy, or at least a green light from them. He had been in touch with them all the while. They had renewed his visa. They knew that he, among others, was a victim of political persecution. On the 13th, after the leak from the supreme court, they confirmed to Arias that he was free to enter the United States and seek asylum.

He left that very night. He had a T-shirt, jeans, and a book. (A novel about ancient Rome. Arias is always reading about ancient Rome, and writing about it, too.) Five days later, Catalina and the kids followed. She had quit her job, taken the kids out of school, and sold their house, with all its belongings — for a song. They arrived in Florida with two suitcases.

True to its leak, the supreme court convicted Arias. They convicted him on ludicrous charges: embezzlement in favor of third parties (i.e., the scamming farmers) and unlawful contract with the OAS (the kind of contract that had been standard practice). The court admitted that it had no witnesses or documentary evidence — an amazing admission — and that Arias had never profited by as much as a cent.

Here is another amazing fact: Five agencies of the Colombian government had looked into the Arias case — five — and determined that there was no wrongdoing.

Most amazing was the sentence. The justices sentenced Arias to 17 years and five months in prison, plus a fine of more than $15 million. There are people in Colombia who believe that Arias was guilty of something (however vague). Almost no one believes the sentence is anything but crazy.

In America, the Arias family applied for asylum. The U.S. government — in the form of USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) — scheduled a hearing for them. Eight days before the scheduled hearing, USCIS canceled it. The government has never explained why, and the Arias family has never been granted a hearing.

Meanwhile, the family made a life for themselves. Andrés found work; Catalina would too. The kids entered elementary school not knowing a word of English. Eloísa is now in a gifted program. Both kids are so English-oriented, they balk at speaking Spanish. It has been three years.

August 24, 2016, was an interesting day — a very bad day for the Arias family. Federal marshals came to cart Andrés off to jail: He would face extradition. The same day, President Santos announced that he had reached a peace deal with the FARC. The Santos government had requested the extradition of Arias more than a year and a half before. Why did the Obama administration start this process on this very day? A present to Santos for the FARC deal? The Uribe camp suspects so.

Arias was in prison, or federal detention, for three months. Then he was released on bail (and fitted with an ankle monitor). On September 28, 2017, he was back in prison — for the federal magistrate judge had cleared the way for his extradition. Curiously, the Colombian government recognizes no extradition treaty between itself and the United States. The Colombians have extradited many criminals to the U.S. in the past, but not under a treaty.

And today, they are refusing to extradite criminals, including the murderers and kidnappers of Americans. The U.S. ambassador in Bogotá has written the Colombian supreme court to protest. The justices slapped him down, sharply. Not only do the Colombians refuse to extradite, they let the murderers and kidnappers go free. At the same time, the United States is on track to send Andrés Felipe Arias back to Colombia — where he has been sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison.

This is one reason people say “Kafkaesque.”

It gets more so. In recent weeks, Colombia has been treated to a major scandal known as el cartel de la toga, or the gown cartel, or the cartel of the judicial robes: The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has caught Colombian judges and other officials taking bribes in exchange for favorable treatment. The judges include some of the very supreme-court justices who convicted Arias.

In America, his defense has filed an appeal. This is happening at what may be a turning point in U.S.–Colombian relations. In Colombia, the drug business — beaten back by Presidents Uribe and Bush — is flourishing again. Drugs from Colombia are pouring over U.S. borders. Washington may well decertify the Colombian government as an ally in the drug war.

Trying all options, Arias has appealed his case to the U.N. Human Rights Committee (always a dodgy body). But his immediate fate is in American hands. It is in the power of the U.S. government — of USCIS and the Department of Homeland Security, specifically — to grant him political asylum. This ought to be done as a simple matter of justice and the rule of law. It would also send a message to Bogotá about what the United States expects from an ally.

More than a few men have emerged from a prison cell to be the leader of their country — Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, for example. Wouldn’t it be something if Arias did the same? I mention this to Arias in an email. He answers, “It would be something — but Catalina would kill me!” Indeed, she shudders at the thought of more involvement in politics. Even at the thought of Colombia itself. Her faith in her homeland has faltered — but her faith in God has strengthened. “Justice is coming soon,” she says. The sooner the better.

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