Imprisoned FARC Commander Simón Trinidad Could Be the Key to Peace in Colombia

Imprisoned FARC Commander Simón Trinidad Could Be the Key to Peace in Colombia
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

Fifty years of bloody conflict in Colombia — thousands of deaths from firefights, sniper attacks, bombings, assassinations, and mass executions — and it all comes down to this: a group of government negotiators and rebel leaders sitting around a big table, talking about land reform and crop subsidies and what is needed to achieve a just and lasting peace.

The latest round of talks between Colombian officials and representatives of the guerrilla movement known as the FARC began in Havana in 2012. The delegates from the FARC (short for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces) tend to dress casually, in short-sleeved shirts or guayaberas and the occasional beret. But there is nothing casual about their objectives.

Just ask the empty chair.

For the past three years, the guerrillas have kept a seat at the negotiating table vacant, reserved for a former FARC commander named Simón Trinidad. Trinidad played a significant role in previous peace talks held between 1999 and 2002, and this time he has been named by the FARC as a plenipotentiary, one of five top negotiators for the group. The FARC leadership has insisted that his participation is vital to any settlement.

But Trinidad has yet to attend the talks. Instead, the rebels have brought along a life-sized cardboard cutout of him, which they produce for news conferences and photo ops — an eerie totem of a balding, gray-stubbled, aging revolutionary, beaming at the masses with arms folded, like a workout guru or Mr. Clean.

Trinidad, whose birth name is Juvenal Ovidio Ricardo Palmera Pineda, will turn 65 at the end of this month. No doubt he would like to be with his comrades in Havana. But he has a previous commitment in Colorado — where, for the past seven years, he has been a resident of the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, better known as ADX. In the highest-security prison in North America, Trinidad is serving a 60-year sentence for "conspiracy to commit hostage-taking," based on a kidnapping that occurred on another continent — and without, his attorneys insist, any direct involvement on his part.

ADX is known for entombing gang leaders, drug lords, and other high-risk prisoners in profound isolation. Its current guest list includes Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, shoe bomber Richard Reid, Aryan Brotherhood leader Barry Mills and double agent Robert Hanssen. Trinidad is housed in H Unit, a kind of prison within the prison, reserved for al Qaeda operatives and others linked to global terrorism. He's a special administrative measures (SAMs) case, one of four dozen inmates in the federal prison system designated as such by the U.S. attorney general. SAMs inmates are considered such a severe threat to national security that their mail, visits, attorney contacts, and other communication with the outside world are severely monitored and restricted.

The SAMs designation means that Trinidad is not allowed to speak to the media, outside supporters, or just about anyone else. His mail and phone contacts are limited to a couple of family members and his attorney, who cannot publicly divulge any of the information his client has conveyed to him. Although Trinidad has a television, his reading material is also restricted. His contact with other inmates — most of whom don't speak his language, just as he doesn't speak theirs — is minimal.

He showers and eats and defecates in an 80-square-foot cell, spending 23 hours a day there. He is a ghost in exile, incommunicado and all but invisible, a guerrilla in the mist.

In the United States, few people have ever heard of Trinidad. But in his native country, he's long been a subject of fascination, revulsion, speculation, and strenuous debate. A son of the ruling elite, a family man with liberal leanings and promising dual careers as a banker and economics professor, he became radicalized by the waves of political violence in Colombia in the 1980s and fled to the mountains to join the FARC at the age of 37. Over the next 16 years, he emerged as a highly effective negotiator and apologist for the guerrillas, even as the acts of violence and terror attributed to them increased sharply.

In some ways, Trinidad's journey to extremism seems like a microcosm of the country's tumult, its decades of drug wars, and unresolved civil strife. His capture and extradition by the Americans has only added to his legend. Although federal prosecutors brought a battery of charges against him in four trials, having to do with drug trafficking and the kidnapping of three Americans working for a defense contractor, they managed to convict him of only a single conspiracy count — and then asked for, and got, the maximum sentence. His supporters consider Trinidad not a terrorist but a political prisoner, a key figure in the struggle for reform, a man Colombian and American authorities colluded to remove from the equation by burying him in a supermax in another country.

"They haven't been able to achieve a military solution to the problems in Colombia," says Tom Burke, spokesman for the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera, a group that protested outside the courthouse during Trinidad's trials. "They need to find a political solution, and Simón Trinidad is part of that."

The argument over whether Trinidad is a criminal or a scapegoat is inseparable from the larger controversy surrounding the FARC itself. The guerrillas represent themselves as a Marxist-Leninist army, allied with Colombia's peasant class against the forces of imperialism. But the group has been condemned by several countries and human-rights organizations for its reliance on the kidnapping and extortion of civilians, as well as its alleged conscription of underaged combatants; up to one-quarter of its troops are said to be younger than 18 years old. In the territories it controls, the FARC also taxes and protects farms, processing facilities, and airstrips involved in Colombia's cocaine trade — a $10-billion-a-year business that has found its primary market in the United States.

Since the late 1990s, the U.S. government has poured billions of dollars into fighting the FARC and the cocaine cartels. The conviction of Trinidad, the highest-ranking commander ever captured, was considered a substantial coup. As the federal prosecutors saw it, anyone so prominent in the FARC — even if Trinidad's primary duties, it seems, involved education and training rather than military operations — must have blood as well as cocaine on his hands.

All of which makes the rebels' insistence on Trinidad's participation in the peace talks a quandary for Colombian authorities and the U.S. State Department. "I find the situation very encouraging," says attorney Mark Burton, who now represents Trinidad in his efforts to obtain release. "The FARC has continually said they will not sign the peace agreement without him."

Burton recently visited his client in ADX — the first active legal representation Trinidad has had in years — and has traveled to Colombia and to the peace talks in Cuba on his behalf. But trying to interpret the signals coming out of those talks is like reading coca leaves. A few weeks ago, Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia's peace commissioner, told the BBC that resolving Trinidad's situation should be part of any accord reached. But Bernard Aronson, the U.S. State Department's special envoy to the talks, has said the issue of Trinidad's future "isn't on the table."

Recently, Miami's Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio introduced a resolution in the U.S. Senate opposing any repatriation of the "convicted narco-terrorist" Simón Trinidad, arguing that his release would be unprecedented and send the wrong message to other terrorism groups. The Obama administration has denied having any formal dialogue with Colombia about such a move, but Rubio's office cites reports of back-channel discussions about Trinidad "at the highest levels."

How much of that chatter has penetrated the cone of silence around Trinidad's supermax cell is anyone's guess. At one of his trials in 2007, he explained to the jury that his decision to join the guerrillas came down to a choice between armed rebellion or going into exile. And exile, he said, was unthinkable: "It meant leaving my country, leaving the land I was born in, leaving my family, leaving my friends, leaving my ideals. It meant leaving everything behind, breaking with everything. I was incapable of it."

But the man who couldn't leave now finds himself in the harshest exile imaginable — imprisoned thousands of miles from his homeland, in a prison within a prison, without even the right to speak. And all of the hostage negotiations are in someone else's hands.

FARC top commanders Simón Trinidad (right), Joaquin Gomez (center), and Jairo speak with journalists October 5, 2000.
FARC top commanders Simón Trinidad (right), Joaquin Gomez (center), and Jairo speak with journalists October 5, 2000.
Photo by Carlos Villalon/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Many of the stories that circulate about Simón Trinidad are of dubious origin. Various news reports and a Wikipedia entry assert that he attended Harvard, which simply isn't true; he never lived in the United States until he was brought here as a prisoner. There are claims that he stole 30 million pesos and financial records from his bank, to be used in extortion plots when he joined the FARC, but no evidence of the alleged embezzlement has ever been presented in court.

Some of the stories seem more plausible than others. Take, for example, a story that Trinidad himself has told about a crucial moment in his political education: the day soldiers came to his door and, without explanation, handcuffed and blindfolded him, put him in a cattle truck, and hauled him away.

That was in 1979, when he was still in his 20s. Ricardo Palmera, as he was known back then, wasn't used to such treatment. His father was a prominent attorney and a senator of the republic; his grandfather had been a governor. The family had cattle ranches, cotton farms, and decades of involvement in Colombia's liberal party.

As a young man working for a state agrarian bank, Palmera traveled frequently to remote areas of the country. He saw firsthand the poverty of the peasant farmers, the overwhelming political and economic power of the large landowners. He returned to Valledupar and took a job at the Popular University of Cesar as an economics professor, where he fell in with left-leaning faculty members pushing for political reform. He also married, and he had a young son and an infant daughter when the soldiers showed up at his house and took him away.

They kept him at an army base for five days. Most of the time, he had no food or water. Interrogators yammered at him night and day, wanting to know what he knew about the ELN, or National Liberation Army, a smaller group than the FARC. Trinidad denied any ties to the group. His family protested his detention and eventually secured his release — but not before a colonel delivered a warning. This time you're going free, he said, but next time your life will be worth 14 pesos — the cost of a nine-millimeter bullet.

After his arrest and interrogation, Palmera began to distance himself from what he regarded as the timidity of mainstream liberal politics. He joined a reform group in the Valledupar area called Common Cause and then an entirely new political party, the Unión Patriótica, which had been forged out of a 1984 cease-fire agreement with the FARC; the idea was that the party would provide a means of participation in the political process for guerrillas who agreed to disarm and rejoin Colombian society. Despite its openly Marxist platform, its candidates won several seats in the Colombian Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, as well as dozens of municipal mayoral and council posts.

The tilt to the left alarmed the landed gentry. Over the next few months, more than a thousand UP members were assassinated by paramilitary groups. Palmera began to get death threats too, telling him to leave or die. At first, he ignored them, convinced that the UP would gain ground and the situation would improve. Then a fellow professor and UP member, a man who'd helped Palmera start a faculty union at the university, was killed. A few weeks later, another close friend in the UP died from an assassin's bullet. Palmera's father told him it was time for him to leave the country.

Palmera remembered what the colonel had said about his life being worth the price of a bullet. He sent his wife to Mexico City; his son and daughter, 11 and 8 years old, soon followed, accompanied by their uncle. But Palmera couldn't get around to boarding a plane himself. He kept trying to figure out a way to stay, to help the UP. He called up party leader Pardo, whom he'd met during the 1986 campaign, and arranged to meet with him.

On the day before the meeting — October 11, 1987 — Pardo was gunned down by a 14-year-old. Depending on which assassination theory you believe, the sicario was hired by a drug lord or by the Colombian military; he was, in any case, killed by police before he could be questioned.

Palmera went to Pardo's funeral. Then he went into the mountains to meet with Jacobo Arenas, one of the founders of the FARC, and told him that he would rather join the guerrillas than leave the country. Arenas let him linger in camp a few weeks to give talks about Colombian history and economics during the "cultural hour." As the surge of violence against the UP continued in the cities, Arenas told him he could stay on. Ricardo Palmera disappeared, and Simón Trinidad, the alias he adopted in the FARC, was born.

He took three months of military training, steeling his aging body to endure the hardships of guerrilla life. He expected the peace process would soon resume. But the years piled up. He took up with a new female companion, a guerrilla he referred to as the Beautiful Lucero; their daughter, Alix, was born in 1992. In 1994, he was named second in command of the 41st Front, a unit of more than a hundred soldiers. Five years after that, he was a FARC delegate at peace talks with the conservative Pastrana administration, marathon sessions that stretched over several years and ultimately failed.

The organization he embraced was a bundle of deadly contradictions. The guerrillas claimed to be working for peace, but they attacked police stations and planted land mines, destroyed pipelines and bridges. They said they wanted justice, but they kidnapped civilians and held them for ransom, sometimes for months or years — a money-raising venture known as "economic retention." They also abducted soldiers, police officers, or political leaders they hoped to trade for their own imprisoned comrades.

Just where Trinidad fit into the FARC's activities was a matter of keen interest to military intelligence, the Colombian popular press, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. It became an even more challenging puzzle after the guerrillas captured three American citizens, then announced that Trinidad was the man to talk to about getting them back.

Colombian soldiers escort Simón Trinidad upon his arrival in Bogotá.
Colombian soldiers escort Simón Trinidad upon his arrival in Bogotá.
Photo by Gerardo Gomez/AFP/Getty Images

On the morning of February 13, 2003, high above the mountains of southeastern Colombia, the single engine of a Cessna plane containing five men suddenly failed. As the plane dived toward the green immensity of the rainforest, intelligence analyst Keith Stansell managed to send a mayday message to the American embassy in Bogotá.

"We have lost engine," Stansell reported. "We're looking for a spot on the ridge to set down. We're just looking for a spot here. Down. We're going down now."

The unplanned landing was bad news for more than the usual reasons. Not only was there no road in sight but the entire territory, for miles in every direction, was controlled by the FARC. Four of the men in the plane were Americans, employees of California Microwave Systems, a subsidiary of Pentagon contractor Northrop Grumman. Their job was to take pictures of cocaine fields and processing facilities — aerial surveillance data that would help guide military missions to poison the crops and destroy the labs. It was all part of Plan Colombia, a joint effort by the American and Colombian governments to combat the cocaine trade and its protectors, the FARC. The Cessna usually flew at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet to avoid taking fire from the guerrillas. Now it was headed right toward them.

As the plane plummeted into range, a guerrilla leader on the ground radioed her commander. "There's a bug flying here very low," she reported. "If it's a fumigator, could we burn it?"

"If it's low, burn that tail," her commander replied. "Play him some music."

The guerrillas opened fire. Amazingly, a clearing loomed below. The plane hit once, bounced, hit again. The fuselage ripped open like paper. Pilots Tom Howes and Tom Janis were knocked unconscious by the impact. Passengers Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, another analyst, tried to drag them out of the aircraft. The fifth man, a Colombian sergeant named Luis Alcides Cruz, who served as a military observer of the aerial reconnaissance missions, managed to pull himself out of the plane — and was quickly surrounded by guerrillas. In the eyes of the FARC, there was little difference between Sergeant Alcides and the civilian contractors; they were all apparently engaged in spying on the FARC's positions, all considered prisoners of war.

By the time a search team reached the crash site, the guerrillas had cleared out. They left behind the bullet-riddled plane and two bodies; Janis had been executed with a single shot to the back of the head, Alcides by one shot in the chest, one in the back. The three other Americans — Howes, Gonsalves, and Stansell — had been spirited into the jungle. Their families would not see them again for years, except in proof-of-life videos released by the guerrillas. The videos of the gaunt men offered dramatic visual evidence of the long marches, starvation rations, and other privations of their captivity.

Despite their poor treatment, the Americans were regarded by the FARC as valuable assets — as important as Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian presidential candidate whom the guerrillas had kidnapped, along with her campaign manager, a year earlier, right after the peace talks fell apart. The Americans were kept under guard with Betancourt in remote jungle outposts, the location changing as Colombian troops probed one section after another. Stashing people in secret camps was no problem; during the peace talks, the government had designated a "demilitarized zone" that was roughly the size of Switzerland and that the FARC found roomy enough to accommodate numerous cocaine operations as well as hostages.

The hide-and-seek went on for months. At one point, Colombian troops raided a camp that had been abandoned just hours earlier. Personal belongings of the Americans had been left behind, along with a notebook containing receipts for the transfer of the "gringos" and other hostages from one guerrilla unit to another. But the gringos were gone.

Other raids met with no more success. The first promising break in the search came in early 2004, with the arrest of Simón Trinidad in Quito, Ecuador. He was carrying false identification papers and was accompanied by the Beautiful Lucero and their 11-year-old daughter. Trinidad requested political asylum from local authorities, but he was soon deported and incarcerated in Colombia.

In interviews with Colombian investigators and an FBI agent, Trinidad said he'd been sent to Ecuador by the FARC leadership on a mission to get the peace process started again. He was supposed to get in contact with United Nations adviser James LeMoyne, with whom he'd developed a rapport during previous talks, and urge him to meet with FARC leader Raul Reyes. He had also been ordered to contact Betancourt's husband, who worked at the French embassy in Quito, to assure him that his wife was alive and well.

His interrogators asked him about a communiqué that had been posted on the FARC website several months earlier, listing the three Americans and other hostages the group was willing to exchange for the release of imprisoned guerrillas. The document named Trinidad and two other FARC members as spokesmen if and when such negotiations ever took place. Trinidad insisted that he had never met the three Americans, had no involvement in their abduction, and didn't know where they were being held.

The communiqué suggested that Trinidad had far more authority in the FARC than he claimed. Surprisingly, though, the pressure to extradite him to the United States in connection with the kidnapping of the three Americans was coming primarily from the Colombian government. A confidential cable from the American embassy disclosed by WikiLeaks indicates that, within days of Trinidad's capture, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe was imploring the Bush administration to take the guerrilla off his hands.

The cable describes Trinidad as "an influential member of the FARC's General Staff" who "helped manage FARC finances and drug trafficking operations." (Trinidad has denied involvement in the cocaine trade and denied being one of the 25 members of the general staff, which works directly under the seven-member secretariat that rules the FARC.) Though the missive concedes that Trinidad hadn't played a major role in combat operations, it also claims that he "is believed to be directly involved in several high-profile terrorist incidents," including the abduction and murder of a former minister of culture.

There was only one problem with extradition: "At this time... Palmera does not face criminal charges in the U.S. The Embassy is unaware of any pending investigations against this well-known narco-terrorist by U.S. law enforcement agencies."

Burton is convinced that the kidnapping and drug charges eventually filed against his client were devised to justify his removal to the United States, not the other way around. "The Colombian government wanted to make a public example of him, to show what would happen to the FARC leadership if they didn't surrender," he says. "It was a political move."

Capturing Trinidad was unquestionably a political victory for Uribe. Extraditing him, though, raised tricky questions about Colombian sovereignty. Was Uribe working for the Americans, or were they working for him? As the date of Trinidad's extradition approached, the FARC grumbled that consigning its comrade to an American supermax would make future prisoner exchanges difficult. The Uribe administration responded that the extradition could be stopped if the FARC would release the 63 political and military hostages it reportedly held, including the three Americans.

The showdown ended with a shackled Trinidad being marched onto a plane bound for Florida. He shouted "Vivan las FARC!" and "Viva [FARC commander-in-chief] Manuel Marulanda!" defiantly from the tarmac.

During the flight, FBI agents took turns getting their pictures taken sitting next to the prisoner.

During a 2013 news conference, heads of the FARC delegation speak in front of a poster of Simón Trinidad at the Convention Palace in Havana.
During a 2013 news conference, heads of the FARC delegation speak in front of a poster of Simón Trinidad at the Convention Palace in Havana.
Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

The first trial, on charges related to the abduction of the three Americans, ended in a hung jury. The second time around, prosecutors hammered away at the misery inflicted by the FARC's kidnappings. One FARC defector described how Trinidad ordered him to stand guard over prisoners, collected ransom in two cases, and dispensed propaganda to the troops: "He would tell us that the Americans were the worst animals on Earth." The wife of Elias Ochoa, a former mayor of Valledupar who was kidnapped by the FARC, testified about going to the guerrillas to try to negotiate her husband's release and hearing his captors talking on the radio with their boss, "Commander Simón." She recognized the voice as that of the man who'd been her professor at the university for four semesters.

Trinidad denied that it was his voice on the radio. He maintained that his rank at the time wasn't high enough to have authority over prisoners. (In 2004, while in jail in the United States, he was tried in Colombia for the Ochoa kidnapping, found guilty, and sentenced to 35 years.) He challenged the credibility of the defector and took exception to the idea that he hated Americans; he loved Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, the American working class, and its civil-rights movement. He insisted that he had nothing to do with the kidnapping of the Americans, that he regarded the whole practice of holding people for ransom as having "a very high political cost to the organization." Yet there was no way around it.

"It became a need," he said. "It became a necessity to finance the revolutionary struggle in Colombia."

The prosecution argued that, even if Trinidad wasn't directly involved in holding the three Americans, his designation as a spokesperson for prisoner-exchange talks made him a conspirator in the plot to take hostages. It might be a conspiracy involving 10,000 or more guerrillas, but he was pretty far up the chain. "You hear a lot of justifications, rationalizations," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Kohl told the jury. "Hostages are called prisoners. Cages are called prisoner-of-war camps... This is the Alice in Wonderland world of the FARC, and the defendant over here is the Mad Hatter."

The jury sent a note to Judge Royce Lamberth saying the panel was deadlocked. They deliberated some more, then sent a second note. Lamberth told them to keep trying. After nearly a week, they found Trinidad guilty of a single count of conspiracy.

Far from satisfied, the Justice Department brought him back to court on drug-trafficking charges. The government put on witnesses who claimed that Trinidad had exhorted coca farmers to deal only with the FARC. Other witnesses claimed to have seen him at airstrips, overseeing cocaine shipments, on dates when he was known to have been attending peace talks; by their account, the man was Henry Kissinger by day, Tony Montana by night. But many of the witnesses had cut their own deals to avoid prosecution.

The jury deadlocked, with a majority reportedly favoring acquittal. Prosecutors decided to retry the case, only to end up with another hung jury. The drug charges were then formally dismissed.

Facing what could be a long prison sentence on the single conspiracy conviction, Trinidad learned that the government might be willing to recommend a lighter sentence — provided, of course, that the FARC immediately release Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Tom Howes. The FARC refused.

At his 2008 sentencing hearing, Trinidad spoke for an hour. He defended the FARC, called his prosecution "a political trial from beginning to end," and denied being a terrorist: "It is the terrorist actions of the Colombian state that brought me to become a member of the FARC, and I will never allow it to become our practice."

Judge Lamberth gave him 60 years.

The FARC responded to Trinidad's sentence with a promise to keep the American hostages for 60 years. But their imprisonment lasted only another six months. Faked radio transmissions, supposedly from a FARC leader, tricked the guerrillas into marching their most prized hostages to a rendezvous point with a helicopter that was supposedly part of a humanitarian mission. The emissaries dressed in white were actually government commandos in disguise; within minutes, the rebels were overpowered. After more than five years in the jungle, Gonsalves, Stansell, and Howes were all freed, in addition to Betancourt and 11 others.

The dramatic rescue was one of several serious military and political setbacks the FARC has endured in recent years. Many of its founding leaders, the men Trinidad admired and took orders from, have died — some in combat, more from the infirmities of old age. Thousands of guerrillas have walked away from the struggle since Trinidad's capture — an estimated 1,400 defectors a year — and Colombian officials now say that the FARC has fewer than 10,000 armed members. The FARC disputes those numbers, but it's clear the group has lost strength and territory.

A man in a supermax cell can follow such misfortunes only at a great remove, but sometimes the losses strike home. A few years ago, an attorney informed Trinidad that his daughter Alix and the Beautiful Lucero had been killed in an air strike on a FARC camp.

In the wake of widespread condemnation for its kidnappings, a practice that even erstwhile supporters such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have deplored, the FARC claims to have renounced holding civilians for ransom and to have released many of its political prisoners. Dozens of hostages remain unaccounted for, however. Two months ago, after a series of government attacks on FARC positions, the guerrillas ended a unilateral cease-fire and increased their targeting of pipelines and energy facilities.

The renewed hostilities threatened to curtail the peace process just as the talks in Havana were lurching into their final months. But the talks persist; one of the remaining sticking points is whether the guerrillas would be accorded some form of general amnesty or face possible criminal prosecutions. Colombia's attorney general is reportedly preparing an indictment listing more than half a million crimes committed by FARC members. President Juan Manuel Santos has acknowledged that what happened to Simón Trinidad has made it difficult to convince Trinidad's comrades to surrender. "I don't believe that any guerrilla is going to turn in his weapon only to go and die in a U.S. jail," Santos said a few weeks ago.

Another sticking point is the fate of Trinidad himself. Burton points out that Sen. Rubio's resolution was introduced shortly after former Colombian President Uribe, who strongly opposes Trinidad's release, visited the United States. "The resolution is a political ploy that violates the separation-of-powers doctrine," he says. "The president has the power to pardon and to commute the sentences of federal prisoners."

If Trinidad ever returns to Colombia, he faces more than a hundred criminal charges pending there. The guerrillas do not consider this an impediment to his participation in the peace process. "The spiritual strength and ideological firmness of Simón Trinidad continue unscathed, untouched, above the arrogance of his gringo prison guards," reads one proclamation issued by the FARC peace delegation. "Simón is the Nelson Mandela of Our America."


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