BOGOTA, Colombia — Leaders of Colombia’s disbanded FARC rebel army accused the U.S. on Tuesday of trapping a prominent rebel negotiator on a drug warrant in order to sabotage the country’s already struggling peace process.

The shock arrest Monday of Seuxis Hernandez, a blind former peace negotiator best known by his alias Jesus Santrich, played into fears that the former guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia haven’t cut ties to the country’s flourishing criminal underworld.

But his former comrades in arms have vehemently rejected the accusation, saying Santrich’s arrest on drug conspiracy charges was the result of a plot hatched during Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ visit to Colombia in December and is intended to cover up for the failure of the war on drugs to stanch cocaine production that has skyrocketed since the singing of the peace deal in 2016. The FARC didn’t provide any evidence to back up the claim.

“In addition to being a shameful subordination of the Colombian justice system, it’s clear we’re witnessing another set up by the distorted American justice system,” the FARC said in a statement read Tuesday by Ivan Marquez, the rebels’ chief negotiator during the peace talks.

More than 100 former rebels and FARC sympathizers gathered late Monday outside the heavily guarded prosecutors’ bunker where the 51-year-old Santrich was being held.

Riot police flanked by a water cannon watched as former rebels shouted “freedom” and waved white flags emblazoned with the red rose symbol of their fledgling political movement, also known as FARC. Inside, Santrich was believed to have initiated a hunger strike to demand his release, according to his lawyer.

President Juan Manuel Santos defended the arrest on a U.S. warrant as necessary to maintain the credibility of the peace accord, which Colombians overwhelmingly consider too generous to rebels responsible for atrocities committed during five decades of bloody, armed conflict.

“My hand won’t tremble to authorize the extradition,” Santos said in a nationally televised address in which he tried to reassure demobilized fighters that they have nothing to fear as long as they uphold their commitments under the peace accord. “This is what the Colombian people demand. In this aspect, there can’t be any room for tolerance or weakness.”

Santrich, who joined the guerrilla movement in his 20s and gradually rose into its central command structure, was one of the first rebel leaders to bet on peace. He went to Norway in 2012 to begin negotiations with Colombia’s government and then participated in talks that continued the next four years in Cuba, where he earned a reputation as being a hard-line ideologue.

He was picked up Monday at a Bogota residence on charges filed in a New York federal court alleging he conspired with three others to smuggle several tons of cocaine into the U.S. with a wholesale value of $15 million, or $320 million when broken up and sold on American streets.

According to an Interpol notice, Santrich met with cocaine buyers at his residence on Nov. 2, 2017 — a day after one of his co-conspirators delivered a 5-kilogram sample of the narcotic to them at a hotel lobby in Bogota.

During the meeting and subsequent negotiations, he and his co-conspirators — one of them, Marlon Marin, reportedly a relative of Marquez — allegedly discussed plans for a 10-ton drug shipment to the U.S., boasting they had access to cocaine laboratories and U.S.-registered planes to produce and transport the drugs inside Colombia, the world’s largest producer of the illegal narcotic. It’s not clear if the drugs were ever sent.

Even before details of the arrest were known, FARC leaders said that it would undermine demobilized rebel fighters’ trust in the peace process.

“The peace process is in a critical moment and is in jeopardy of failing,” Marquez said, reaffirming that the FARC’s commitment to a process that has led to the demobilization of almost 7,000 fighters “has no return.”

The arrest took on added political significance because it came less than a week before President Donald Trump was set to visit Bogota for conversations with Santos partly expected to be about U.S. claims that Colombia’s longstanding support for the drug war flagged during peace talks.

Trump on Tuesday cancelled his visit, delegating Vice President Mike Pence to take his place. The FARC, speaking before Trump cancelled the trip, said Santrich shouldn’t be handed over as a “trophy” to Trump.

U.S. authorities have doubted the sincerity of the FARC leadership’s commitment to abandoning the drug trade as it enters politics, and last year named 21 suspected drug traffickers wanted for extradition who were on a list of former fighters and sympathizers entitled to benefits under the peace treaty.

Under terms of the accord, rebels who lay down their weapons and confess their war crimes are to be spared jail time and extradition. But they aren’t protected for crimes committed after the December 2016 signing.

A special tribunal set up by the accord will rule on whether Santrich’s alleged past crimes are covered by the agreement in what experts say is a major test for the peace process’ credibility.

The FARC long funded their insurgency by leveling a “war tax” on cocaine moving through territory the rebels dominated. Fifty members of its leadership structure — though not Santrich — were indicted in 2006 in the U.S. on charges of running the world’s largest drug cartel.

But the rebels always denied direct involvement in the business itself and rebel peace negotiators in 2013 denounced drug trafficking as a “scourge” that has “contaminated” the international financial system and generated a global health crisis.

“The senior leadership never cut ties to the cocaine production that earned them billions of dollars as an insurgence,” said Douglas Farrah, a senior visiting fellow at the National Defense University who has testified to U.S. Congress on the FARC’s criminal ties.

“Like addicts they just can’t quit the business,” he added.


Associated Press writers Manuel Rueda, Cesar Garcia and Christine Armario contributed to this report.


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