The empty chair at Colombia's peace talks

AP News

11/13/2012 10:54:37 AM - AP News

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — There will be an empty seat at the negotiating table when Colombians plunge into talks next week on ending a conflict that has bled the South American nation for a half century.

It's reserved for a 62-year-old economist, a senator's son and boyhood friend to a future president who is penned up at the maximum-security prison in the Rocky Mountains where the United States holds its most notorious convicted terrorists.

Ricardo Palmera's journey from the apex of Colombian society to a soldier in a peasant-based army and finally to a U.S. prison mirrors the complexity of the class-based conflict that the talks in Cuba mean to end — and the depth of U.S. involvement in it.

His commitment to reforming a society marked by deep inequities, at a time right-wing death squads were killing off such activists, led him to join a rebel force that has kidnapped and extorted, recruited child soldiers and financed itself through the cocaine trade.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, named Palmera to its five-person negotiating team fully aware the odds against his participation were long. It considers him a prisoner of war and highly values his intellectual firepower.

As a member of an officially designated terrorist organization, the former college professor spends his days in near-isolation along with roughly 440 other inmates at the ultra-secure "Supermax" federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. Also held there are "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and some al-Qaida operatives. Palmera is scheduled for release in 2056, at age 106.

A rare recent image in a YouTube video dated November 2010 shows Palmera sitting in a prison conference room in yellow coveralls, speaking via video hookup to a Colombian judge.

He is bald and solidly built. His wrists are chained together. So are his ankles. And he tells the judge there are batteries strapped to one of his legs so prison guards can remotely administer a disabling electrical shock.

"I have been in complete isolation for more than five years, without being able to exchange conversation with others because I don't speak the language," he says.

Palmera is permitted direct contact only with his lawyer, a public defender, and immediate family. He gets 45 minutes of phone calls a month, which he uses to speak to his brother Jaime, to his 92-year-old mother and his 38-year-old son, Manuel, who hadn't seen his father for two decades before their eyes met in a Washington courtroom six years ago.

A daughter, Alix Maria, died along with her mother, a guerrilla, when government aircraft attacked a FARC camp. The teenager was visiting during a school holiday.

Palmera was captured in 2004 while trying to negotiate freedom for imprisoned rebels in exchange for three American contractors held hostage in jungle gulags by the FARC. The Americans were rescued four years later, along with former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Palmera was extradited to the U.S., then a jury in Washington convicted him and he was sentenced to the maximum of 60 years in prison for hostage-taking conspiracy, though prosecutors presented no evidence he was directly involved in the men's capture or imprisonment.

Many Colombians believe the prosecution of Palmera, who is better known by his nom de guerre Simon Trinidad, was above all a U.S. gesture of political support for then-President Alvaro Uribe, who badly weakened the rebels with more than $7 billion in U.S. aid and close military coordination.

"The U.S. government would be making a great contribution to reconciliation in the Colombian family by making Simon's physical participation at this table possible," the FARC's top negotiator, Ivan Marquez, said at the talks' inauguration in Norway on Oct. 18.

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.

It was a decision that set their future.

All across Colombia, right-wing death squads began the systematic slaughter of 3,000 Patriotic Union activists.

After two of his close associates were killed in mid-1987, "the threats began to come to all of us, to me, my wife, my children: 'Either you go or you die,'" Palmera recalls in the YouTube video.

He sent his wife and two children to Mexico but decided not to join them. He made an appointment to meet in Bogota with Jaime Pardo Leal, the Patriotic Union's presidential candidate.

But the day before the meeting, on Oct. 11, 1987, Pardo Leal was assassinated.

So Palmera wrote a FARC contact, Adan Izquierdo, saying: "What do I do? I am not leaving this country like a dog with his tail between his legs."

Izquierdo invited him to the jungle to meet the FARC's top leaders, one of whom tried to persuade him that, at age 37 and with his credentials, he was more useful as a civilian activist than a soldier.

Then word arrived of a new massacre of six activists in Medellin.

Palmera decided to stay and fight, adopting parts of the name of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century South American independence hero.

"If one is truly a revolutionary, a Bolivarian, one can't survive even a day giving speeches in public plazas," Palmera said. "That's why I'm a guerrilla."

___

Associated Press writers Libardo Cardona in Bogota, Colombia, and Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, contributed to this report.

___

Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak