BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – As negotiations to end Colombia's half-century conflict close in on a final deal, attention is turning to the fate of an aging bank manager-turned leftist rebel who is being held at a U.S. maximum security prison alongside notorious terrorists.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia consider Ricardo Palmera to be a prisoner of war and have long insisted he be released for a peace accord to be signed. But the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has long rejected freeing Palmera, who is serving a 60-year sentence in connection to the FARC's holding captive of three American defense contractors for more than five years a decade ago.
With peace talks expected to wrap up as early as March and President Juan Manuel Santos heading to Washington on Tuesday to cement U.S. support for an accord with the FARC, there is a renewed push to win the 65-year-old's release.
Last week, Colombian Sen. Ivan Cepeda, a trusted conduit of both the FARC and Santos, quietly met with Palmera at the United States' highest security prison to discuss how he can contribute to peace, according to officials in Colombia and the U.S. familiar with the meeting. Cepeda was accompanied by Colombian diplomats and the conversation monitored by U.S. law enforcement, said four officials, who insisted on not being named because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The officials wouldn't reveal specifics about was said in the meeting, but the visit was unusual. Dubbed the "Alcatraz of the Rockies," the 400-plus inmates at the "Supermax" penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, including Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and some al-Qaida operatives, are kept in their cells as much as 23 hours a day and are normally allowed to meet only with their lawyers and family.
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Palmera's lawyer, Mark Burton, didn't reply to repeated email and phone requests seeking comment.
For FARC leaders, Palmera, better known by his nom de guerre Simon Trinidad, is a symbol of what they consider to be heavy-handed U.S. meddling in Colombia's conflict. When peace talks began in Cuba in 2012, Colombia's main rebel movement named him one of its five chief negotiators, using an empty seat and life-size cutout to draw attention to his imprisonment.
He was extradited to the U.S. in 2004 and convicted of conspiracy to kidnap the three Americans and sentenced to the maximum 60 years, though he beat more serious charges of actual hostage-taking and terrorism as well as drug-trafficking. The Americans were rescued in 2008.
"He was convicted to teach the FARC a lesson," said Carlos Lozano, a Communist Party politician and past intermediary to the FARC. "If Obama really wants to help build peace, after expending such an effort on war-making and weapon selling, then he can facilitate an agreement to allow this man to be at the peace table. The moment has arrived."
Born into a wealthy cattle-ranching family and the son of a senator, Palmera was an unusual recruit for the peasant-based FARC. After watching fellow leftists gunned down by right-wing militias during a previous peace attempt in the 1980s, he left his job as a bank manager near his home in Valledupar and fled to a guerrilla hideout in the jungle.
His elite pedigree and familiarity with real-world politics are valuable assets for the FARC as it prepares to disarm and compete at the ballot box, Lozano said.
Although FARC negotiators insist Palmera's release is a priority, they have not said flatly that they would jettison a deal over the issue. U.S. officials, meanwhile, haven't ruled out an early release or transfer but insist Colombia has not made any such request and say it's not a topic of negotiations.
Santos, in an interview with The Associated Press, was emphatic that he isn't seeking Palmera's release, because it's not in his hands, but would view any such move by the U.S. favorably.
"Of course I would like it because it would help the process," he said.
"It would be a tremendous gesture for the FARC, for their dignity, as they really have made this issue an important issue for them. And you sometimes you have to make concessions of this sort to make the agreements stronger," he said. "But again: this is something I can't commit myself to."
Another Colombian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the White House and State Department have expressed a willingness to consider repatriating Palmera, but also have cautioned that opinion inside the U.S. government is divided.
Clearly, some Americans balk at any move to free Palmera.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate, introduced a resolution last year opposing Palmera's release.
The former American captives also oppose letting him go. "There is no compelling, extraordinary or humanitarian reasons to release this international terrorist — tried, convicted and sentenced for a crime involving national security," they wrote in a November letter to a federal judge.
Keith Stansell, one of the former captives, told the AP he still suffers nightmares and has scars from being chained during his captivity.
"His conditions are a thousand times better than mine were," Stansell said, "and he's a terrorist."