BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A retired journalist who joined the criminal underworld while researching a book on South America's drug cartels became the first Colombian, and possibly the first Latin American, to be executed in China for drug offenses.
The execution Monday night of Ismael Arciniegas occurred amid a last-ditch diplomatic effort by Colombia's government to save the 72-year-old's life. Arciniegas was arrested in 2010 arriving by plane to the southern port city of Guangzhou trying to smuggle almost 4 kilograms of cocaine in exchange for $5,000.
But his downfall came decades earlier, in the 1980s, when he began researching a book on drug cartels in his native Cali, according to his son, Juan Jose Herrera, who described to local media the heart-breaking, 20-minute phone conversation he and family members had with his father shortly before he was taken to a room to be killed by lethal injection.
"God has opened his gates for me," a calm Arciniegas said in the tear-filled conversation, an excerpt of which was broadcast by Blu Radio. "Remember me warmly, with love. I'm going very tranquil, very relaxed. Nothing worries me."
Colombia's government expressed its condolences to Arciniegas' family and reiterated its objection to China's use of capital punishment. Since November, China has repatriated two convicted Colombian drug traffickers for humanitarian reasons so they could complete their sentences back home.
"We fought until the last minute to save his life," the foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that it was making arrangements to repatriate Arciniegas' ashes to his family in Cali.
The execution threatens to strain relations between the two important commercial partners because, according to Colombian officials, there are 15 more people from the South American country on death row in China and an equal number sentenced to life imprisonment. Both punishments are illegal in Colombia.
But while news of Arciniegas' death dominated social media in Colombia on Tuesday an online survey by Blu of almost 5,000 people showed 52 percent in agreement with the harsh punishment.
China is the world's top executioner, although it's unclear how many foreigners have been sentenced to death in China for drugs or other offenses. A Chinese state media report said in 2015 that a dozen foreign people had been sentenced to death after being convicted of drug dealing. Most were from Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia, the report said.
Chinese law states that anyone convicted of smuggling, selling, transporting or producing more than 1 kilogram of opium, or 50 grams of methamphetamine or heroin, or a large amount of other drugs, could face the death penalty.
"Chinese judicial authorities have been cracking down in accordance with law," Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry, said at a briefing Tuesday when asked about Arciniegas' execution. "China always attaches importance to the protection of human rights and the right of life. The legitimate right and interest of the individual involved in the case has been guaranteed."
Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine, a phenomenon that since the days of Pablo Escobar has generated eye-popping fortunes but also afflicted countless numbers of poor families drawn to the drug trade with the promise of easy money. More than 8,500 Colombians are being held in jails around the world for drug trafficking, including 146 in China, authorities said.
Herrera said his family was especially cursed.
His father was imprisoned for drug offenses when he was born, his mother died of an overdose when he was 2 years old and a brother was killed a few years ago by unknown assassins in Cali, one of the cities that is most-ravaged by drug trafficking. His uncle, Arciniegas' brother, was also arrested trying to sneak drugs into China and died in jail there of a stroke in 2013.
Herrera said his father's bookish background — he spoke several foreign languages and was an obsessive writer — made him an attractive drug mule to criminals he met in the 1980s while researching a never-published book, to be called "Satanic War," about the damage caused Colombia by the drug war. Shortly after, he amassed a small fortune but later saw his riches and contact with his family all but disappear when he was jailed in Colombia.
When he traveled to China in 2010, he had fallen on hard times and was trying to rebuild.
"They filled him with greed and led him to make a mistake that cost him his life," Herrera, who has a tattoo of his father's face on his chest, told Blu. "He was only a pawn in the game."
AP Writers Gillian Wong and Liu Zheng contributed to this report from Beijing.