Courts

Tried in Texas, Colombian Attorney Gets Prison Time Over FARC Scam for Drug Traffickers

A U.S. judge sentenced a Colombian attorney to 90 months in prison.
A U.S. judge sentenced a Colombian attorney to 90 months in prison. Photo by Colin Davis on Unsplash
When the Colombian government and left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) struck a historic peace deal in 2016, members of the guerilla group received guarantees that they wouldn’t be extradited to the U.S. for any alleged crimes that had already been committed.

The peace accord was celebrated as an end to decades of armed conflict and violent political strife, but one Colombian lawyer saw an opportunity to exploit the deal and make a few million bucks along the way.

Last week, U.S. Judge Sean D. Jordan sentenced the attorney, 49-year-old Maritza Claudia Fernanda Lorza Ramirez, to seven and a half years in a federal prison for a crime related to adding drug traffickers to the list of FARC members to avoid prosecution in the U.S. The traffickers had been indicted in the Eastern District of Texas and multiple districts in Florida.

Indicted by a grand jury in Texas in May 2018, Ramirez faced a federal charge of obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a press release Thursday. A jury found her guilty in June.

Ramirez's attorney, Alexei Schacht, took issue with the government's framing of the case from start to finish, describing the case as "an example of how the war on drugs has gone off of the rails."

"The dangerous large scale drug-dealers whose cases my client sought to obstruct testified against her, and they will be released early from prison as a result," Schacht told the Observer by email. "Meanwhile, not one of them has been punished for hiring my client to try to obstruct their cases. Not one. This is a bizarre ending to a case that will not make America safer."

"This is a bizarre ending to a case that will not make America safer." – Alexei Schacht, attorney

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According to the original indictment, the Colombian attorney informed the drug traffickers she could “corruptly” have their names added to the list and help block any potential extradition to the U.S., where they were facing federal court cases.

In exchange, the “large-scale” drug traffickers paid the attorney more than $3 million, court documents say.

In one instance, Ramirez reportedly met with Juan Carlos Melo Guerrero in June 2017, promising to help nix any extradition efforts in exchange for more than half a million dollars. The lawyer assured Guerrero she was working with a Texas-based Drug Enforcement Administration agent on his case, according to court documents.

Although FARC’s political insurgency did at times include overlap with narco-trafficking, U.S. authorities say Guerrero had never been a member of the militant group.

The U.S. first requested Ramirez’s extradition in 2019, as reported by the Colombian daily El Tiempo. She was arrested at the El Dorado International Airport in Bogota.

When the extradition was approved in 2021, Colombia’s then Minister of Justice, Wilson Ruiz Orejuela, reportedly said Ramirez had provided false information to include at least six of the high-profile drug traffickers on the FARC amnesty list.

The Department of Justice says her efforts interfered with ongoing prosecutions in the U.S. and prompted the defendants to refuse cooperation with American investigators and authorities.

“Ramirez offered services to Colombian drug traffickers, who were not members of the FARC, promising them they could be fraudulently placed on the FARC list and avoid extradition to and prosecution in the United States,” U.S. Attorney Brit Featherston said in a release Thursday.

“Not only did Ramirez’s actions pervert the rule of law and the peace process in Colombia, but they also hindered ongoing investigations which facilitated the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. by protecting dangerous drug traffickers,” Featherstone added.

"Ramirez offered services to Colombian drug traffickers, who were not members of the FARC, promising them they could be fraudulently placed on the FARC list and avoid extradition to and prosecution in the United States." – U.S. Attorney Brit Featherston

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The investigation included the involvement of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s offices in Dallas and Miami and Colombian authorities, among other law enforcement agencies.

The FARC peace deal put an end to more than five decades of armed conflict in Colombia, with the militant group eventually disarming and forfeiting its weapons to the United Nations.

In recent years, several alleged high-level drug dealers from Latin America were extradited to Texas and tried or convicted on federal charges.

In August, Nicaraguan citizen Raduan Omar Zamora Mayorga was extradited from Honduras to Texas, where he’s facing trial on charges stemming for his alleged manufacturing and distribution of cocaine he knew would be sold in the U.S.

In May, former Mexican Gulf cartel leader Mario Cárdenas Guillén was similarly brought to Texas to stand trial on charges stemming from allegedly distributing cocaine in the U.S.

In October 2021, U.S. District Judge Amos L. Mazzant dealt Wilson Wilfredo Luargas-Garcia, a Guatemalan citizen, a life sentence in a case that involved charges related to pumping drugs to cartel networks in South and Central America and working closely with armed guerilla fighters, including FARC.
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Patrick Strickland is the former news editor at the Dallas Observer. He's worked as a senior reporter at Al Jazeera English. His reporting has appeared in the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Politico EU and The New Republic, among others.

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