Ex-Minister of Agriculture Andres Felipe Arias is currently in the United States seeking political asylum, according to Colombian media reports released Friday morning.
The news comes just over a week after Arias was found guilty of embezzling over $25 million through an agricultural subsidy program called Agro Ingreso Seguro (AIS).
Arias was nowhere to be found at the time of his sentencing, leading to suspicions that he escaped the country to avoid imprisonment, as had former intelligence director Maria del Pilar Hurtado, who also served under ex-President Alvaro Uribe. Reports emerged that Arias’s sentence may have been leaked two weeks prior to the announcement, giving the former minister time to leave the country.
Prosecutors successfully demonstrated that Arias had funneled state subsidies intended for poor farmers into the accounts of wealthy and politically powerful families, a beauty queen, and even former paramilitaries.
Arias was “on vacation” in the United States at the time of his sentencing, having been there since June 13 — the same day Colombian media were informed of a potential guilty ruling against him. Bogota-based Blu Radio reports that Arias’ protection squadron has not heard from him since July 13.
If Arias returns to Colombia, he will be facing eight to 33 years in prison for his role in the embezzlement scheme, according to Bogota-based Radio Santa Fe.
After the guilty verdict, Arias’ lawyer reiterated his client’s defense, which was that Arias did not personally know any of the recipients of the subsidies, and that Arias was convicted because the people actually responsible “had their office on the same floor as Dr. Arias.”
Conservative candidate for the presidency
Widely known as “Uribito” for his resemblance in politics, personality, and appearance to former President Alvaro Uribe, Arias served as minister of agriculture from 2005-2009, when he resigned to run in the 2010 presidential elections. According to Colombian law, a person cannot seek the presidency if they hold another role in the public sector within one year of elections.
Arias lost out to Noemi Sanin in the Conservative Party primary and refused an invitation to join the candidate’s campaign. Arias later changed his mind and served the Sanin campaign, which later lost in first round elections to candidates Juan Manuel Santos — the eventual victor — and Antanas Mockus.
The breaking of the Agro Ingreso Seguro scandal and imprisonment
Arias was offered the ambassadorship to Italy in 2010, just before AIS scandal broke out and Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez banned Arias from holding public office for 16 years.
At this point, more details began to emerge about the extent of the embezzlement, and Arias was sent to prison for the case as a “precautionary measure.”
Judge Orlando Fierro said that Arias had run an opaque and ultimately illegal bidding process and expressed suspicion about Arias’ frequent visits to prison, where he met with former functionaries of the ministry.
Four other functionaries that worked with Arias in the Ministry of Agriculture were released from prison without a trial, because the legal time limit to begin proceedings had expired.
Release from prison
Arias was released from prison on bail in June of 2013, despite being denied bail when he was first arrested in 2011. Prosecutors stated it was because of the lack of evidence that existed on the charge that Arias was obstructing justice, giving grounds for the “precautionary measure” to be overturned.
The judge who released Arias was quoted as saying, “The precautionary measure [jail] imposed on Dr. Arias Leyva was not appropriate or reasonable to contribute to a constitutional end, nor did it prove to be necessary,” according to national newsmagazine Semana.
Arias’ eventual conviction makes him the latest former Uribe allies to be sentenced on charges relating to corruption.
While Maria del Pilar Hurtado was recently stripped of her political asylum in Panama, the director has yet to return to Colombia, where she is wanted in relation to the DAS wiretapping scandal, in which intelligence agents were found to have spied on Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, journalists, and human rights workers, turning over intelligence to paramilitary forces in some cases.
It is unclear what grounds Arias would use to obtain asylum in the United States, as such status is typically granted to persons facing political persecution.
- Andrés Felipe Arias habría pedido asilo en los Estados Unidos (Radio Santa Fé)
- “Desde el 13 de junio no hay noticias de Arias”: Unidad Nacional de Protección (Blu Radio)
- Andrés Felipe Arias quedó en libertad (El Espectador)