Former FARC leader's arrest sought in blow to Colombia's peace deal

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered the capture of a former FARC rebel commander-turned lawmaker on Tuesday after he failed to appear for questioning about U.S. drug-trafficking charges, in a fresh blow to the country’s landmark peace deal.

Seuxis Paucias Hernandez, known in Colombia by his war alias Jesus Santrich, was one of 10 former FARC commanders to become lawmakers under the terms of the 2016 peace deal.

The agreement, signed by former President Juan Manuel Santos, sought to end a half-century conflict that has killed 260,000 people, allowing former Marxist rebels to enter politics and integrate back into society.

But last year, U.S. authorities sought Hernandez’s extradition on charges he helped smuggle 10 tonnes of cocaine to the United States in 2017. Hernandez, 52, has denied the charges, saying it is part of a conspiracy.

Hernandez was summoned to appear in court on Tuesday to help determine whether he should be detained while his extradition is under review. But only his lawyer showed up, saying he had no idea where his client was.

Colombian President Ivan Duque praised the court for ordering Hernandez’s capture. “This is the decision expected by all Colombians who are outraged by this spectacle of mockery of justice,” he said in broadcast comments.

Hernandez’s disappearance could build support for Duque to take a harder stance against the FARC. Many Colombians felt the peace deal was too lenient with former rebels, and Duque campaigned on promises to modify it.

Hernandez went missing on June 30, when authorities say he ditched his bodyguards in a reincorporation area for ex-combatants near the border with Venezuela. He has not been seen in public since then.

The FARC’s political party now has just eight active lawmakers. Another former commander-turned-lawmaker, Luciano Marin - alias Ivan Marquez, went missing last year after his nephew was arrested and taken to the United States to cooperate with drug-trafficking investigators.

A special court set up to oversee the peace deal is now investigating whether Marin and other former FARC commanders are fulfilling their commitments.

Hernandez had been arrested last year along with Marin’s nephew, but was later released, re-arrested and released again on orders of the Supreme Court.

Hernandez’s lawyer, Eduardo Matias, said Colombian and U.S. authorities are trying to ruin his client’s reputation.

“There’s a public lynching by the executive branch and the U.S. embassy,” Matias told crowds of reporters earlier on Tuesday.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, Writing by Mitra Taj; Editing by Dan Grebler and Leslie Adler