Should Colombia Save Its Drug Smugglers From Execution Abroad?

Repatriating people like Ismael Arciniegas, a Colombian executed in China for drug smuggling, could create a perverse incentive.


BOGOTÁ — China’s recent execution of a Colombian arrested for drug trafficking — and the uproar it caused here — underscore just how inhumane the death penalty is and offer a helpful reminder of why we don’t have capital punishment in Colombia.

And yet we need to be careful, in situations like this, not to fall into the trap of blaming the Foreign Affairs Ministry for failing to repatriate citizens who’ve broken the law in other countries. Because when the government does bring those people home, it creates a perverse incentive for criminals, especially so-called “drug mules.”

The case reached its cruel climax shortly before 10 p.m. on Feb. 27, when Chinese authorities executed Ismael Arciniegas Valencia, a Colombian captured in 2010 with 4 kilograms of cocaine. Arciniegas had been sentenced to death in keeping with Chinese laws mandating punishments of between 15 years in jail and execution for smuggling more than 50 grams of cocaine. During his trial, the Colombian pleaded guilty and said he knew the drugs he was carrying were illegal. He also said he’d been paid $5,000 to transport the cocaine. He was a mule, in other words.

The sentence, no matter how you look at it, was excessive. For a state to…