In this photo released by the Colombian Immigration agency, migration...

In this photo released by the Colombian Immigration agency, migration officials meet former Colombian paramilitary leader, Salvatore Mancuso, second from left, at the gate of the plane at El Dorado International Airport in Bogota, Colombia, Feb. 27, 2024, upon arrival from the U.S. which deported him after he served time for drug trafficking. Credit: AP

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombian warlord Salvatore Mancuso on Wednesday was released from prison in the South American country after repeatedly asking the courts to approve his freedom and promising to collaborate in the government’s rapprochement with illegal armed groups.

Mancuso, a leader of a paramilitary group founded by cattle ranchers, was repatriated from the United States in February after serving a 12-year drug-trafficking sentence and then spending three years in an immigration detention facility while officials decided whether to send him to Colombia or Italy, where he also is a citizen.

Since his return to Colombia, he appeared before various courts, which then notified corrections authorities that they no longer had any pending detention orders. Courts had judged him responsible for more than 1,500 acts of murder and disappearances during one of the most violent periods of Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict.

Human rights organizations and government officials in Colombia hope that Mancuso will cooperate with the justice system and provide information about hundreds of crimes that took place when paramilitary groups fought leftist rebels in rural Colombia in the 1990s and early 2000s. Mancuso's United Self Defense Forces of Colombia fought against leftist rebels.

In multiple hearings with Colombian judges, including some by teleconference while in U.S. custody, the former warlord has spoken of his dealings with politicians, and of the potential involvement of high-ranking politicians in war crimes. But his 2008 extradition to the U.S. slowed down investigations.

Mancuso was born to a wealthy family in northwest Colombia and was a prosperous cattle rancher. He began to collaborate with the country's army in the early ’90s after his family was threatened by rebel groups who demanded extortion payments.

He then quickly transitioned from providing intel to the military to leading operations against leftist rebels. In 2003, he joined a peace process under which paramilitary leaders demobilized in exchange for reduced sentences. But he was extradited to the U.S. five years later along with other paramilitary leaders wanted in drug trafficking cases.

Mancuso was sentenced in 2015 for guiding more than 130 tons of cocaine to U.S. soil. Prosecutors accused him of turning to drug trafficking to finance his armed group.

Corrections authorities on Wednesday said they had notified the National Protection Unit — a group in charge of protecting people who are at high risk of threats or attacks — of Mancuso's release so that it can follow procedures to guarantee his safety.

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