A death sentence given to a Colombian citizen convicted of murder in Florida has provoked an appeal for clemency by the Colombian government and an emotional public reaction against U.S. authorities in a country that abolished the death penalty 72 years ago.
Luis Carlos Arango, convicted of the drug related slaying of a fellow Colombian in a Miami hotel room, was scheduled to die in the electric chair next Tuesday morning in a Florida state prison.
But yesterday the Florida Supreme Court issued an indefinite stay of execution, which officials in that state said made an execution any time in the near future unlikely. They stressed that if the state court did uphold the death sentence, Arango could still appeal through the federal courts.
Although Arango's death sentence has been pending for almost three years, the case became known in Colombia only two weeks ago when Arango's wife and family broke a long silence to give emotional accounts of the case to Colombian reporters. Since then, Colombian newspapers, radio news shows and national television have carried almost daily accounts of Arango's legal appeals. Public figures ranging from television stars to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez have criticized the planned execution as an unjust "exemplary" punishment of a Latin by U.S. authorities.
"He never knew what was happening," Arango's wife said in a dramatic account to Colombian reporters last week. "He didn't know a word of English . . . . He didn't realize that the court was condemning him to die in the electric chair."
Miami police arrested Arango in March 1980, after they found him in a motel room with the body of Jairo Arango Posada, along with two pistols, a silencer, $7,800 and a bag of cocaine. The two men were not related.
The 46-year-old father of three was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury in July 1980, and Graham signed the execution order earlier this month after the preliminary rounds of appeals were exhausted. Arango has continued to maintain his innocence.
As the controversy has grown, the case has become a focus for reviving Colombian nationalism and has underlined tensions between Colombia and the United States over increasing cocaine trafficking and aggressive efforts by U.S. authorities to control it.
Last week, Colombian Minister of Justice Bernardo Gaitan released a message he sent to Florida Gov. Robert Graham, asking that the death sentence be commuted on the grounds that the crime involved two Colombians and that Colombia had abolished the death penalty.
Other spokesmen here have begun to attack what they say are heavy-handed U.S. efforts to suppress narcotics traffic outside the United States, including the recently signed extradition treaty between the two countries.
The growing controversy prompted U.S. officials to issue a lengthy statement here last week maintaining that Arango "has received the complete protection of the judicial system of the United States" and denouncing a "campaign" against the extradition treaty "using the case of Arango as a pretext," although Arango was not extradited.
As Colombian correspondents descended on Florida to cover the case, Arango has emerged in the press here as a relatively typical small businessman from the industrial city of Medellin who was drawn into the ever expanding underworld of Colombian cocaine traffic into the United States.
Arango's family has charged that he was unable to understand the complicated legal process, had no interpreter at the trial and was being rushed to execution ahead of other condemned men by authorities eager to make an example of him.
Sympathetic Colombian commentators have been quick to agree and have described in critical terms Arango's condition in a Florida jail. One correspondent wrote that Arango had been sent to a region of northern Florida "that has nothing to do with Miami, that is the real United States with freckled children and enormous men, near such racist regions as Atlanta and Alabama."
The statement issued by U.S. officials here last week denied that Arango's case had been rushed and said that he had been provided with an interpreter by the Florida court.